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Coastal Commission asserts authority over offshore fracking

THUMS islands, man-made sites off the coast of Long Beach used to access the Wilmington Oil Field, are the site of acidizing, well techniques now tracked by regional air regulators concerned about possible health and environmental impacts.
Donielle/via Flickr
Man-made sites off the coast of Long Beach are used to access the Wilmington Oil Field. The Thums Long Beach Company has announced offshore fracking plans, and now the California Coastal Commission says Thums and the City of Long Beach must seek coastal development permits to go forward.

Less than a month after state oil and gas regulators gave a green light to new offshore oil operations in Long Beach Harbor, the California Coastal Commission said that Thums Long Beach Company must also obtain coastal development permits in order to go ahead with the project.

It’s the first time that coastal regulators have asserted authority over hydraulic fracking when it's done in California waters, according to Allison Dettmer, a deputy director for energy policy at the California Coastal Commission. 

Fracking helps extract oil and gas by injecting water, sand, and chemicals into rock under high pressure. Increasing popularity of production technique has raised concerns about groundwater contamination, earthquakes, air and other pollution.

Public records revealed in 2013 that fracking was more common in offshore waters than state agencies realized, and that no state or federal agency was asserting authority over it. 

Still, the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources issued no new offshore permits until last month, when Thums obtained a green light for operations to be conducted from man-made drilling islands built in the harbor to access the Wilmington Oil Field.

This month, new regulations took effect requiring more testing and monitoring for hydraulic fracturing and some similar well stimulation processes as a result of SB4, a state law sponsored by Agoura Hills State Senator Fran Pavley. 

Those new regulations are part of why the Coastal Commission has determined that fracking constitutes development under the Coastal Act, according to Dettmer.

“It was an activity that the coastal commission wasn’t regulating [in 2013],” Dettmer says, “No oil company was telling us they were doing it. The whole issue of fracking and other well stimulation treatments wasn’t on anybody’s radar very much until this became such an issue elsewhere in the country.”

In a written statement, William Blair, Manager for Security and External Operations at the California Resources Corporation, the parent company for Thums, emphasized that previous fracking jobs in Long Beach harbor have resulted in no harm. 

CRC's Blair also said that Thums is weighing the cost of the project before making a final decision to do it. "There are no plans to implement the well stimulation permits until completion of this economic analysis," he wrote.

But Blair refused to say whether CRC and Thums will seek permission from the Coastal Commission before beginning fracking.

A lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, Kristin Monsell, said the company may sue to block the project if its sponsors do not seek Coastal Commission authority. Monsell called the commission's assertion of jurisdiction over offshore fracking "very significant." 

"We think that if the coastal commission actually takes a hard look at all of the additional dangers posed by toxic offshore fracking it will deny these applications," Monsell said. "It's just too big of a threat to our oceans and its inconsistent with the Coastal Act." 

Long Beach is the largest offshore fracking operation in state waters, but it's not alone. Records reveal similar nearshore operations in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. 

"We expect to see more of this in the future," said the Coastal Commission's Dettmer.