Fracking Expanding Offshore in the Gulf of Mexico

by | Thursday, November 20, 2014 |

Fracking is a controversial drilling technique that has sky-rocketed the production of land-based shale gas, and sparked environmental concerns and debates from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast.

What many people don’t know, however, is that fracking is expanding offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Few are aware of this, and very little information has been passed down from regulators. Says Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental advocacy group, “People don’t know this is happening. Nobody I talk to has any idea, much less the process that’s used to get at those reserves.”

Policy Director of NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity, Jayni Hein, agrees. “There’s very little public information on the practice, and to date, we just simply don’t know a great deal about where and when it’s taking place.”

What is “fracking”?

The term fracking refers to the inserting of chemicals, sand and water into the bottom of a well in an attempt to stimulate gas and oil from the surrounding area, so that it can be harvested more rapidly and easily. This process has been used for nearly 70 years on land, and for almost 20 years offshore.

When it comes to offshore fracking, the most common type is more about clearing out sand and mud rather than breaking up bedrock. Tools are used to send gravel or pellets, as well as seawater, acid and chemicals, to filter out and break up impediments.

Though there is much discussion about environmental dangers from both processes, industry representatives insist that environmentalists are blowing the risks out of proportion.

How are we tracking the processes?

Many questions are circulating, however, about how well regulators are tracking the processes. EPA water discharge permits will allow an operator to dump up to a certain amount of chemicals and oil into the Gulf along with the processed water, but the permits and lists of chemicals are only available publicly for land-based operations – not for the offshore operations.

Industry representatives insist that the offshore process doesn’t involve any horizontal drilling, and no drinking water is involved. Additionally, offshore fracking generally uses much less destructive fracturing in more permeable sand formation, which causes breaks that extend less than 100 feet from the well bore. In fact, the Environmental Impact Statement for the offshore fracking in the Gulf calls it “small scale by comparison” with the on land version of fracking.

The basics, though, are the same. And many environmentalists are shocked that the practice is expanding – without much public disclosure – into deep water where extreme hydrocarbon volatility contributed to the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010. And that didn’t even include fracking.

Categorical Exclusion

Under the National Environmental Protection Act exists what is called a “Categorical Exclusion” from specific review, which was supposed to be fixed, according to regulators. However, a report by the Environmental Defense Center last year stated that offshore fracking is still being approved under Categorical Exclusion from review. The Center’s report, “Dirty Water”, alleges that drilling and discharge permits were being stamped in the Santa Barbara Channel with outdated environmental reviews and insignificant testing of overboard water.

Executive Director of the California Independent Petroleum Association, Rock Zierman, disagrees. He asserts, "Some have suggested that the discharges of fluids from offshore platforms are poorly characterized and impose an undue risk to the marine environment, and we simply feel that this is not true. The EPA development documents themselves are more than 500 pages long. … The chemicals and chemical families used for hydraulic fracturing are considered in these documents."

However, as exposed by WWL-TV in an investigative report last year, overboard water testing is done by the operators, and there are some who have been caught doctoring samples to falsify the quantities of pollutants that they were releasing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The numbers

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) reported that 115 oil or gas wells in the Gulf (15% of wells completed and prepared for production in 2013), utilized a hydraulic fracturing technique known as “frac pack”, which is the less destructive of the fracking methods employed offshore. Though a BSEE spokesperson stated that such frac packs account for most of the offshore fracking work, the agency could not give any data for the other forms of fracking. The spokesperson said that the drilling permits detailing any fracking operations are proprietary.

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