When it comes to the environment, Californians are a tad persnickety. Despite the famous oil fields of Los Angeles, the state’s residents have historically dug in their heels when it comes to oil and gas development as well as other environmental menaces — California is, after all, the home of Yosemite and in some ways the birthplace of the modern environmental movement. The Sierra-Nevadas that inspired John Muir still stand tall over the California landscape, and so do the environmental organizations established to protect nature in California and beyond.
Which is why the news that fracking has been occurring off California’s shores for 15 years without federal oversight or general knowledge has got a number of residents and regulators hot under the collar.
The industry managed to sneak operations in right under the noses of sharp-eyed observers, and they aren’t happy. In the long term, anti-fracking activists in California as elsewhere want to see the practice banned or tightly curtailed due to safety concerns, but in the short term, a moratorium to investigate the situation is clearly called for, in order to determine what’s going on and how regulators failed so spectacularly.
Way back in the free-loving days of 1969, a terrible oil spill off the California coast led to a suspension of new oil leases to protect vulnerable marine territory. At the same time, older leases were maintained under their existing contracts, allowing oil companies to keep drilling, and fracking, if they felt like it: working in federal waters, they weren’t subject to state oversight, and the federal regulators in charge of oil and gas safety have limited systems in place for monitoring fracking and addressing safety concerns.
Astoundingly, it’s totally legal to pump chemicals used in fracking directly into the seabed and into the sea without needing to apply for special clearances or disclose what’s in them, because they’ve been exempted from the laws meant to keep U.S. waters clean. While periodic safety inspections do occur, oil companies are pretty much on the honor system when it comes to managing spills, and we all know how well that works out. When huge profits are at stake and companies want to keep a low profile, as is definitely the case in states with a big environmental movement, reporting on accidental releases of oil is going to be minimal unless oil companies absolutely must disclose.
Lest you think that fracking in California’s waters is having the kind of results that might justify the potential environmental disasters it could cause, think again. Companies that have used it report rather mixed results, indicating that it may only modestly increase production from older wells, even those located on the Monterey Shale, which is projected to contain significant oil reserves. Given the chances of striking it big, oil companies will undoubtedly keep trying, but that only increases the risk, because with every well and injection of fracking fluids to access oil supplies comes another chance for a catastrophic spill.
The California Coastal Commission, newly alerted to the fracking issue, says it plans to keep an eye on it, according to the Associated Press. California agencies that have the power to refuse oil and gas permits on the grounds that they threaten state waters may be taking action as well. Certainly the industry seems to be preparing for a fight now that its dirty little secret is out; already, press releases about the safety and reliability of fracking are flooding out of public relations offices at major oil and gas firms.
Across the United States, the fracking battle is heating up, and oil companies may have just made a serious mistake with taking it to California’s back yard.
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