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Map of offshore drilling in California

The Feds Trump California’s State Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling

Offshore drilling in the United States federal waters has caused the most environmentally destructive disasters in North America. Yet, new policy is pushing for the expansion of offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of California.

Offshore Drilling History

In 1969, Union Oil’s offshore rig Platform A had a blowout that leaked 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel, one of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world. The spill lasted ten days and killed an estimated 3,500 sea birds, as well as an untold number of marine mammals. Unbelievably, the Santa Barbara spill is only the third largest spill in U.S. waters. It follows the 1989 Exxon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. These incidents keep getting bigger.

More offshore drilling means a higher risk of catastrophe, additional contamination of air and water locally, and more greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Federal Moratorium on California Offshore Leases

Up until the beginning of 2018, further oil and gas development using offshore oil rig platforms seemed quite unlikely. After the 1969 oil spill from Platform A and the subsequent ban on further leasing in state waters, the risk of another devastating oil spill was too large for even the federal government to consider new leases. The fact that the moratorium lasted through 16 years of Bush presidencies is truly a victory. Across the aisle, expanding offshore operations has been opposed. In Florida, even Republican Governor Rick Scott teamed up with environmental groups to fight the Department of Interior’s recent sales of offshore leases.

Trump’s New Gas Leasing Program

Now, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is preparing a new 2019-2024 national Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program to replace the existing 2017-2022 program. This is an unusual practice, and part of Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy. The Trump administration opened up most of the US coastal waters for new oil and gas drilling with a recent draft proposal offering 47 new offshore block lease sales to take place between 2019 and 2024.

Where might these new leases occur?

The offshore federal waters that are open for oil and gas leases are shown in dark blue in the map below (Figure 1). Zoom out to see the extent.

Figure 1. Map of Offshore Oil and Gas Extraction


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | Map Data Download (CSV)

California’s Offshore Oil

Southern California has a legacy of oil extraction, particularly Los Angeles. It’s not just the federal government that is keen on continuing this legacy. While the state has not permitted the leasing of new blocks in offshore waters, Governor Brown’s policies have been very friendly to the oil and gas industry. According to Oil Change International’s Sky’s the Limit report: “Under the Brown administration, the state has permitted the drilling of more than 20,000 new wells,” including 5,000 offshore wells in state waters. About 2,000 of these offshore wells have been drilled since 2012.

This map developed in collaboration with Consumer Watch Dog juxtaposes the offshore wells drilled in CA state waters with those drilled in federal waters.

Southern California is the main target for future offshore leasing. The Monterey Shale formation, which underlies the city of Los Angeles and expands north offshore to the Ventura Coast, is thought to contain the largest conventional oil plays left IN THE WORLD! The map above shows the locations of state and federal offshore oil and gas wells and the rigs that service them. It also shows historical wells off the coast of Northern California.

Northern California, both onshore and offshore, sits on top of major reserves of natural gas, which may also be developed given the political climate. With an increase in the price of natural gas, operators will be developing these gas fields. Some operators, such as Chevron, have already drilled natural gas wells in northern California, but have left the wells “shut in” (capped) until production becomes more profitable.

For a more comprehensive coverage on environmental impacts of offshore operations, including those to sensitive species, check out the Environmental Defense Center’s Dirty Water Report and read our additional coverage of California’s existing offshore drilling, and offshore fracking.

Air Pollution from Oil Rigs

FracTracker, in collaboration with Earthworks, recently teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace International to get up close to offshore oil rigs. As a certified Optical Gas Imaging Thermographer, Kyle Ferrar (Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance and California Community Empowerment Project Organizer for Earthworks), took footage of the offshore oil rigs.

Using infrared technology, we were able to visualize and record emissions and leaks of volatile hydrocarbons and other greenhouse gases coming from these offshore sites. We documented many cases of intense flaring from the rigs, including several cases where the poorly burning flare allowed hydrocarbons to be leaked to the atmosphere prior to complete combustion of CO2.

More complete coverage of this trip can be found here on the Greenpeace website.

Below you can view a compilation of the footage we were able to capture from small pontoon boats.

Conclusion

FracTracker has looked at offshore oil and gas drilling from many different angles. We have looked to the past, and found the most egregious environmental damages in U.S. history. We have analyzed the data and shown where, when, and how much offshore drilling is happening in California. We have demonstrated that much of the drilling and many of the proposed leases are in protected and sensitive habitats. We have looked at policy and found that both Governor Brown and President Trump are aligned to promote more oil and gas development. We have even looked at the rigs in person in multiple spectrums of light and found that these operations continuously leak and emit greenhouse gases and other air toxins.

No matter which way you look at offshore oil and gas drilling, it is clearly one of the most threatening methods of oil and gas extraction in use today.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Offshore oil and gas development in CA - Photo by Linda Krop Environmental Defense Center

More offshore drilling and “fracking” in California

Offshore oil and gas development is expanding in CA. This article explores the state’s regulatory framework, existing data, and data discrepancies.

Federal Regulations for Offshore Fracking

In the summer of 2016 the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) jointly released an environmental study that reviewed offshore fracking operations. The report found that operations have a minimal impact on marine health. For a review of California’s offshore oil and gas operations, see FracTrackers Alliance’s coverage of the collaborative report with the Environmental Defense Center, the Dirty Water Report.

As ThinkProgress reports, these two federal agencies will now resume the approval of offshore fracking permits. In response, Governor Jerry Brown made a plea to President Obama, to prevent fracking off California’s coast. Governor Brown asked President Obama to institute a permanent ban on all new offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters, saying:

California is blessed with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline; home to scenic state parks, beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife and thriving communities,” Brown wrote in a letter to Obama. “Clearly, large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.

A new report by Liza Tucker at Consumer Watchdog has reviewed the state regulatory agency’s own policies under the Brown Administration. The report claims, “Brown has nurtured drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the state while stifling efforts to protect the public.” The report asks Governor Brown to “direct regulators to reject any drilling in a protected coastal sanctuary, ban offshore fracking, and phase out oil drilling in state waters” among other recommendations.

California Data & Discrepancies

FracTracker Alliance reviewed the data published by DOGGR on permitted offshore wells. (DOGGR refers to the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources, which regulates drilling in CA). Using API identification numbers as a timeline, we actually find that it is likely that 238 wells have been drilled offshore since the start of 2012. The DOGGR database only lists “spud” (drilling) and completion dates for 71 – a mere 1.3% of the 5,435 total offshore wells. DOGGR reports that 1,366 offshore wells are currently active production wells. It must be noted that these numbers are only estimations, since operators have a 2-year window to drill wells after receiving a permit and API number.

Using these methods of deduction, we find that since the beginning of 2012 the majority of offshore wells have been drilled offshore of Los Angeles County in the Wilmington Oil Field (204 in total); followed by 25 offshore in the Huntington Beach field; 7 in the West Montalvo field offshore of Ventura County, and 1 in the Belmont field, also offshore of Ventura County. These wells are shown as bright yellow circles in the map below. Additionally, the Center for Biological Diversity reports that at least 200 of the wells off California’s coast have been hydraulically fractured.

Offshore Oil and Gas Development and SB4-Approved Well Stimulations


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

In total, DOGGR data shows 5,435 offshore oil and gas wells. Of those listed as active, new or idle, they break down into well types as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Offshore oil and gas well types

Well Type Count
Oil and Gas Production 1,539
Dry Gas 5
Waste Disposal 14
Steam Flood 2
Water Flood 813
Pressure Maintenance 3
Observation 8

New Fracking under SB4 Rules

The map above also shows several datasets that detail the stimulation activity that has been occurring in California since the passage of SB4 under Jerry Brown. Prior to the adoption of the new stimulation regulations on July 1, 2015, operators submitted applications and received permits for a total of 2,130 wells. These well permits are shown in the map labeled “CA SB4 Interim Well Stimulation Permits.” Since July of 2015, 596 of these permitted wells have been stimulated. In the map above, the layer “CA SB4 Well Stimulation Disclosures” shows the time series of these wells. An additional 31 well stimulation treatment permit applications have been submitted to DOGGR, since the adoption of the final rules on July 1, 2015. They are shown in the map, labeled “CA SB4 Well Stimulation Treatment Permit Applications.”


Offshore drilling cover photo by Linda Krop, Environmental Defense Center

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling: Risks to the Sea Otter

By Emily Watson, FracTracker Summer Intern

Sea otters, an endangered keystone species, are at risk due to offshore oil and gas drilling spills. Along the west coast of the U.S., this marine mammal’s habitat is commonly near offshore drilling sites, specifically in California and Alaska.

Sea Otters – a Keystone Species

Sea otter numbers used to range from several hundred thousand to more than a million. Today, there are estimated to be just over 106,000 in existence worldwide, with fewer than 3,000 living in California. Their habitats range from Canada, Russia, Japan, California and Washington, but the majority of all wild sea otters are found in Alaskan waters.

Sea otters play a significant role in their local environments, and a much greater ecosystem role than any other species in their habitat area. Sea otters are predators, critical to maintaining the balance of the near-shore kelp ecosystems, and are referred to as keystone species. Without this balancing act, coastal kelp forests in California would be devoured by other aquatic life.  Sea otter predation helps to ensure that the kelp community continues to provide cover and food for many of the marine animals. Additionally, kelp plays a tremendous role in capturing carbon in the coastal ecosystems. In that sense, sea otters also inadvertently help to reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Oil Spills and their Health Implications

Recently, Alaska and California, home to a wide variety of marine life, have been popular areas for offshore oil and gas drilling, which may include the use of fracking to extract hydrocarbons. Oil spills are a great concern for the sea otter; unlike other marine animals that may be able to eventually rid themselves of the oil, contact with the oil causes the sea otters fur to mat, preventing insulation, which can lead to hypothermia. Additionally, the ingestion of toxic oil chemicals while cleansing their fur can cause liver and kidney failure, as well as severe damage to their lungs and eyes.

Because their numbers are low and their geographic location area is rather small compared to other sea otter populations, the California sea otter is especially vulnerable, and could be devastated by oil contamination.

Prince William Sound, Alaska

Exxon Valdez cleanup. Photograph by Natalie Fobes, National Geographic

Exxon Valdez cleanup. Photograph by Natalie Fobes, National Geographic

On March 24, 1989, the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling an estimated 42 million liters of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. This incident affected marine life throughout western Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska, and lower Cook Inlet. An estimated 3500–5500 otters from a total population of about 30,000 may have died as a direct result of the oil spill. Oiling and ingestion of oil-contaminated shellfish may have affected reproduction and caused a variety of long-term sublethal effects. Necropsies of sea otter carcasses indicated that most deaths of sea otters were attributed to the oil, and pathologic and histologic changes were associated with oil exposure in the lung, liver, and kidney. Studies of long-term effects indicate that the sea otter population in the Prince William Sound area suffered from chronic effects of oil exposure at least through 1991. While some populations may recover after a spill, it would seem that the threat of oil pollution impacts is intensified for populations in deteriorating habitats and to those that are in decline.

Santa Barbara Coast, California

LA Santa Barbara Oil Spill Cleanup - Photo by: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

LA Santa Barbara Oil Spill Cleanup – Photo by: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

On Tuesday, May 19, 2015, a pipeline was found to be leaking into the Santa Barbara Coast in California. This broken pipeline, owned by Plains All American, spilled approximately 105,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, according to various news reports, stretching out into a 4-mile radius along the central California coastline.

These waters are home to an array of shore birds, seals, sea lions, otters and whales. Numerous amounts of marine life have been found washed up on the shore, including crabs, octopuses, fish, birds, and dolphins. Elephant seals, sea lions, and other marine wildlife have been taken to Seaworld in San Diego for treatment and recovery.

The Santa Barbara accident occurred on the same stretch of coastline as spill in 1969 that – at the time – was the largest ever incident in U.S. waters and contributed to the rise of the American environmental movement. Several hundred-thousand gallons spilled from a blowout on an oil platform, and thousands of seabirds were killed and numerous ocean wildlife, including sea lions, elephant seals, and fish perished.

Conclusion

Overall, the ocean is home to a great diversity of marine wildlife, all of which are vulnerable to oil contamination. Offshore gas drilling is a significant threat to the survival of sea otters and other marine life, wherein spills and accidents could cause health problems, toxicity, and even death. Oil spills are exceptionally problematic for sea otters, due to the vulnerable state of this animal and its endangered species state. Keeping keystone species healthy is instrumental to maintaining a well flourished ecosystem, while protecting habitats for a large array of marine and wildlife. The potential impacts on CA sea otters and other marine life due to events such as the 2015 oil spill in California should not be taken lightly.

Offshore oil and gas development in CA - Photo by Linda Krop Environmental Defense Center

Hydraulic Fracturing Offshore Wells on the California Coast

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Dirty Water by EDCOn October 16th, the Environmental Defense Center released a report focused on the use of hydraulic fracturing by offshore oil drilling platforms off the coast of California.1 The full report can be found on the EDC’s website. I was asked to assist in creating the report’s GIS maps, the results of which are described partially in the article below and are shown on the right.  An interactive map of this data, overlaid with additional data layers including oil spills and offshore wells is below.

Regulation of Offshore Drilling

California has 24 offshore oil rigs, with only one of them located, and therefore regulated, in state waters. In the map below, the regulated platform is labeled as “Holly.” The rest of the platforms, including platform “A” which was responsible for the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, are located in federal waters beyond the “outer continental shelf” (OCS) boundary, shown in the map with a dashed line.

Santa Barbara Channel_10.7.13

International, federal, and state laws are interrelated legal regimes that impact development of offshore oil, gas and other mineral resources in the US. Governance is bifurcated between state and federal law. States have authority in the “three-geographical-mile” area extending from their coasts. Federal regulatory regime governs minerals located under federal waters that extend out past state boundaries at least 200nautical miles from shore.  This is known as the “exclusive economic zone,” for which coastal nations have the sovereign right to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources. The basis for most federal regulations is the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which provides the system for offshore oil and gas exploration, leasing, and ultimate development. Regulations range from health, safety, resource conservation and environmental standards to requirements for production-based royalties and in some cases royalty relief and other development incentives. The moratoria on offshore leasing on many areas of the outer continental shelf were lifted in 2008 by President Bush and the 110th congress. Prior to that, several areas were made available for leasing in 2006 including the Aleutians and the Gulf. Recent changes to authorities regulating offshore development resulted after the Mineral Management Service was implicated in numerous scandals, including uncollected royalties estimated to amount to $160 million in 2006 alone.2 Offshore resource extraction is now regulated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, both agencies of the Department of the Interior.

Investigating Hydraulic Fracturing

Point Conception Offshore Rigs_10.7.13

A recent freedom of information act request filed by the Environmental Defense Center (the group was formed in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill) identified 15 offshore drilling operations that used hydraulic fracturing. (Update: recent information from the FOIA shows 203 frac’ing operations from 6 different rig platforms!)4.  This number is most likely a vast underestimation, as the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) estimates 12% of offshore operations in the Gulf use hydraulic fracturing. These “frac” operations were conducted without notifying the necessary regulatory agencies. The majority of this activity was conducted from the platforms Gilda and Gail, both labeled in the maps. While these offshore energy resources may be oil-rich, the fossil fuel resources pale in comparison to the biodiversity and ecological productivity of the Santa Barbara Channel and the California Channel Islands. The geography of the Channel Islands was formed by the cold-water swells of Northern California meeting with the warm-water swells of Southern California. This convergence resulted in a plethora of ecological microcosms in addition to the critical and sensitive habitats of endangered and threatened species shown in the maps.

Recently, the Department of the Interior approved four more hydraulic fracturing operations at these offshore platforms. Take note of the many ecological preserves and areas of protected/sensitive habitat in the midst of the many offshore wells and platforms. The map layer showing historic oil spills deserves special attention, with focus on the spills at platforms Gail and Gilda. Seeing this, it is alarming that the proposals were not required to conduct environmental impact assessments, and were instead granted “categorical exemptions” from the environmental analyses and public transparency actions strictly required by the National Environmental Policy Act. These actions (or lack thereof) in such an ecologically complex environment, especially considering it is the historical site of the US’s third largest oil spill, raises serious questions of compliance with other federal laws including the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Coastal Zone Management Act.3

Policy Recommendations

Additionally, the EDC report makes several policy recommendations:

  • Place a moratorium on offshore hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and other forms of well stimulation unless and until such technologies are proven safe through a public and transparent comprehensive scientific review
  • Prohibit the use of categorical exclusions to authorize offshore fracking and other forms of well stimulation
  • Formally evaluate offshore fracking and other forms of well stimulation through a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement
  • Initiate consistency reviews with the California Coastal Commission for all exploration plans, development plans, drilling or modification proposals involving fracking
  • Ensure that all fracking proposals comply with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act
  • Review and revise the Clean Water Act permit governing offshore oil platforms to directly address chemicals in frac flowback and other wastewater, either establishing effluent limitations for those chemicals or denying discharge altogether

References

  1. Environmental Defense Center. 2013. Dirty Water: Fracking offshore California. Retrieved 10/16/13.
  2. Daniel Whitten. September 16, 2010. Oil, Gas Royalty-In-Kind Program to End, Salazar Says. Bloomberg. Retrieved 10/15/2013.
  3. Environmental Defense Center. October 16, 2013. EDC Provides Fracking Details. Retrieved 10/16/13.
  4. ALICIA CHANG and JASON DEAREN. October 19, 2013. California Offshore Fracking More Widespread than Anyone Believed. Huffington Post. Retrieved 10/22/13.