Soapbox

Keep moratorium on offshore fracking

Workers prepare an oil containment boom at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, in May 2015. Plains All American Pipeline, the Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years, had assured the government that a break in the line was “extremely unlikely.”
Workers prepare an oil containment boom at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, in May 2015. Plains All American Pipeline, the Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years, had assured the government that a break in the line was “extremely unlikely.” Associated Press file

In 1969, an offshore oil platform failed near the coast of Santa Barbara, causing one of the worst oil spills in American history. Last year, my constituents on the Central Coast saw history repeat itself when a corroded pipeline spilled more than 100,000 gallons of crude onto our coast.

The risks of offshore oil production are painfully obvious – and just as clear is the obligation of federal officials to carefully regulate these activities in U.S. waters near our coast.

That’s why the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agencies that oversee offshore energy production and environmental safety, must rethink the recent proposal included in their draft environmental assessment that would allow oil companies to resume hydraulic fracturing and acidization at offshore platforms near Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Many questions remain about the safety of these controversial oil-production techniques. While we still know very little about the impacts of onshore fracking, we know even less about offshore fracking and acidization, both of which employ toxic chemicals that pose threats to people, wildlife and the environment.

Federal officials wisely agreed several months ago to halt offshore fracking and acidization near California pending a careful study of the risks. That decision comes after legal pressure from conservation organizations and legislation that I’ve introduced for many years that would place a similar moratorium on these practices in federal waters off the West Coast until a full environmental review is completed.

To me, that’s just common sense. Not only is our coastline one of the most beautiful in the world, but it is also critical for countless local businesses and our economy as a whole.

Unfortunately, the draft federal environmental assessment does not resolve the concerns of many people in Santa Barbara and other coastal communities.

The assessment, for example, cited a study that concluded that there are “critical data gaps” in our understanding of the toxicity of fracking chemicals and their effects on marine life. Yet in the same document, officials propose allowing the oil industry to resume fracking offshore wells with very little transparency.

Under the plan, it is unclear if oil companies would have to disclose any information to the public about what chemicals they are using. Even worse, oil companies could resume discharging fracking chemicals mixed with wastewater into the Santa Barbara Channel.

More fundamentally, the proposal by the two federal bureaus in charge of overseeing offshore energy production and environmental safety seems to encourage the resumption of fracking so that oil companies can recover as much oil as possible. Encouraging offshore oil production today puts our region at greater risk in the future. We know that every gallon of fuel extracted and burned contributes to global warming and puts California at greater risk of droughts, wildfires and coastal flooding.

At the very least, the federal government has a duty to thoughtfully assess the wisdom of allowing controversial techniques like fracking and acidizing to be used to prolong the life of aging offshore oil infrastructure.

Such deliberations would be in line with other recent decisions by the federal government. Last year, federal officials announced the cancellation of oil-lease sales in Arctic waters. And just this month, citing strong community concerns, they halted plans to open the southeastern Atlantic coast to oil and gas leasing.

California deserves similar thoughtful consideration when it comes to offshore fracking and acidization.

We know how much harm oil production can do to our coast. It’s time for federal officials to reduce the risk by maintaining the moratorium on these controversial techniques until they can be proved safe.

Rep. Lois Capps is the Democratic congresswoman representing Santa Barbara. Contact her through her congressional website capps.house.gov/contact-me/email-me.

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