U.S. Implements Moratorium on Fracking in California Waters

The federal government is finally studying the offshore environmental impact of the controversial drilling technique.

Image via Flickr user Steven Storm

The waters off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, are some of the most biodiverse in the world—home to thousands of threatened sea otters, blue whales, sea turtles, and several endangered species of baby boomer. The waters are also home to six fracking sites blasting toxic chemicals into the ocean.

As of this past Friday, some relief is coming. In legal settlements with the Environmental Defense Center and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Department of the Interior agreed to stop issuing new fracking permits for waters off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties until it completes a review of offshore fracking’s impact on water quality and marine life. The federal government has never studied the issue before.

“Once federal officials take a hard look at the dangers, they’ll have to conclude that offshore fracking is far too big of a gamble [for] our oceans’ life-support systems,” CBD attorney Kristen Monsell said in a statement.

Image by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons

As reported in 2013 by the Associated Press and nonprofit news outlet Truthout, oil companies have used fracking (the high-pressure hydraulic fracturing of rock to stimulate underwater oil wells) in California waters for more than two decades, with none of the environmental oversight required by federal law. Instead, federal regulators “permitted” fracking applications by simply modifying existing drilling permits, without re-evaluating the risks of new types of operations.

Yet the risks are numerous. At least 10 fracking chemicals routinely used offshore in California are deadly or harmful to a variety of marine species, including sea otters, according to an independent report released in 2014 by the California Council on Science and Technology. Offshore fracking can also induce earthquakes—making the fact that all of Southern California’s offshore wells are located within three miles of an active fault worrisome—and it exposes coastal communities to air pollutants that can cause strokes, heart attacks, and cancer.

The federal environmental assessment will be published in May. In response to the settlement, the American Petroleum Institute issued a statement calling the review unnecessary and the permit moratorium unjustified.

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