In January 1969, a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, changed the course of our country's environmental history. Shocked by images of sludge-covered beaches, blackened waves, and thousands of oil-soaked birds lying dead on the sand, the American public demanded the enactment of new environmental safeguards. This outcry helped spark the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to take environmental impacts into account when making decisions. NEPA has sometimes been called our "environmental Magna Carta."
Considering that history, the news that oil companies are fracking off the coast of California takes on a tragic irony. As reported by the AP on Saturday, for years federal agencies have been approving fracking operations -- and the indiscriminate dumping of fracking waste -- in the same offshore oil fields that caused the 1969 spill. The irony is that regulators have exempted the offshore dumping of dangerous, chemical-laced fracking fluids from adequate environmental review under NEPA.
Fracking is an inherently risky process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to create cracks in shale and other rock formations and release the oil or natural gas trapped inside. Fracking fluid typically consists of dozens of chemicals, many of them toxic and some of them carcinogenic, and when it returns to the surface it is usually accompanied by "produced water," which can contain heavy metals and radioactive materials. Fracking and related oil and gas activities have been linked to drinking water contamination, hazardous air pollution, and wildlife deaths and illinesses across the country.
The Santa Barbara Channel plays host to an array of seal, sea lion, dolphin, and whale species, including the endangered blue and humpback whales. Fracking puts all of them at risk. And since oil companies are primarily using offshore fracking to try to revive old wells, this drilling activity runs the risk of breaking the seals on old well bores, causing new oil spills. But those risks haven't stopped the EPA and the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) from allowing oil companies to frack in the Santa Barbara Channel, or from allowing them to dump fracking waste fluids into the Pacific Ocean.
Normally, the dumping of potentially hazardous materials would require the government to conduct an environmental assessment or prepare an environmental impact statement, as mandated by NEPA. But federal regulators have approved this indiscriminate dumping of waste under the weak "categorical exclusion" process, which involves only minimal environmental review and does not allow for any public comment. What's worse, for years California regulators had no idea that fracking was occurring off the state's coast, because federal agencies didn't bother to inform them.
The EPA and the BSEE have continuously approved fracking operations off the coast of California despite the fact that there's no substantial research examining fracking's effects on marine environments. Without such research -- or any serious environmental impact studies by federal agencies -- we have no way of knowing how much harm has been inflicted by offshore fracking.
We shouldn't allow more fracking in the sensitive waters off California's coast -- especially when we have no idea how it affects marine life. Federal and state agencies must keep fracking wastes out of coastal waters and, at the same time, Congress must eliminate the loophole in NEPA that allows regulators to grant categorical exclusions to many oil- and gas-related activities.
If the Santa Barbara oil spill more than 40 years ago taught us anything, it's that oil and gas drilling will always put human health and natural environments at risk. We must turn away fossil fuels like oil and natural gas and invest in clean, safe forms of energy, like wind and solar. Embracing a clean-energy future will not only stave off the devastating consequences of climate disruption but will also protect our oceans, coastlines, and beaches from deadly pollution.
-- Sammy Roth