EPA requires California offshore frackers to disclose chemicals

Fracking companies had been drilling off the coast of California since the late 1990s before regulators stepped in

In this May 1, 2009 file photo, offshore oil drilling platform 'Gail' operated by Venoco, Inc., is shown off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Chris Carlson/AP

Oil and gas companies that are using hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — off the Southern California coast must report chemicals discharged into the ocean under new requirements released Thursday by federal environmental regulators.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the requirement in the federal register. It becomes effective March 1.

Environmentalists hope the change will allow the public a better view of chemicals used in both onshore and offshore fracking. Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring companies that frack on land in California to disclose what chemicals they use. Companies that participate in fracking in other states often don’t have to disclose the chemicals they use.

But activists say the change doesn’t go nearly far enough in stemming environmental damage from the practice.

The EPA’s move comes after a series of stories by The Associated Press last year revealed at least a dozen offshore frack jobs in the Santa Barbara Channel, and more than 200 in near-shore waters overseen by the state of California that were loosely or completely unregulated.

Hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping huge amounts of sand, water and chemicals deep underground to release oil, was conducted with no separate environmental analysis of the fracking chemicals on the surrounding sea, and little or no oversight.

"This requirement was added in response to recent concerns regarding the potential effects of discharges of fluids used for offshore hydraulic fracturing operations," the EPA said in its notice.

The oil industry has insisted that fracking does not harm the environment.

While attention has been focused on fracking on land close to communities, little is known about the practice in the ocean, which uses far less fracking fluids.

Well permits and emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show fracking has quietly occurred off Southern California since the late 1990s with mixed success.

After the AP stories were published, the California Coastal Commission launched an investigation. A group of state lawmakers also called on the federal government to look into the practice.

The new EPA permit guidelines apply only to new drilling jobs on nearly two dozen grandfathered-in platforms in federal waters off the Santa Barbara coast, site of a 1969 oil platform blowout that spilled more than 3 million gallons of crude oil, ruined miles of beaches and killed thousands of birds and other wildlife.

Separately, state oil regulators have drafted rules requiring companies to test groundwater and alert landowners before fracking or other well stimulation. Companies would also have to disclose the chemicals used and acquire permits before a job. Those rules go into full effect in 2015.

Environmentalists said the new federal rules were a step in the right direction, but they still want the government to ban the practice altogether.

“We have a right to know what those chemicals are. This is a step in the right direction,” said Kathryn Phillips, the director for the Sierra Club’s California branch. “But it’s pretty clear regulations are so weak that they’re not going to protect the public’s health and the environment. What we need is a moratorium.”

The Associated Press. Peter Moskowitz contributed to this report.

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