Will fracking in the Gulf of Mexico lead to the next Deepwater Horizon?
If you read the financial papers, you may be aware that the Gulf of Mexico is looking like a giant, underwater piggybank. New advances in seismic technology, and more powerful equipment developed for fracking operations, have turned oil fields that were thought to be extinct into gold rush territory again. The same dynamic that has led to oil booms in previously quiet regions of the Great Plains and Appalachia is now moving to the less-populated — but at least equally ecologically fragile — offshore drilling zone.
The rock formation that the new fracking technology is focused on is known as the Lower Tertiary. It’s an area that is considered risky to drill in – not because the oil isn’t there but because it’s really expensive and technically complicated to extract from the rock itself. The current estimate is that there’s around $1.5 trillion worth of oil waiting for us there. But the dollar-signs-in-the-eyes effect here could dim fast if we had more information about the risks involved — and if the folks going after the oil had to account for those risks.
To understand what’s going on in the Gulf, you need to travel three years back in time and a couple of thousand miles in space, to Santa Barbara, CA. In 2011, staff at the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) were browsing through the quarterly reports for companies that owned oil and gas drilling leases off the coast of Santa Barbara, and found a reference to fracking. They were surprised — they had thought that fracking was something that happened on land, rather than offshore. The EDC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of the Interior, which was responsible for handling the leases.
What the FOIA revealed was even more surprising. The Department of the Interior “was basically unaware that fracking was going on,” said Brian Segee, the staff attorney for the center. “They were scrambling to find the information for the FOIA. There was no discussion of fracking in the permits, and very little discussion of the permits at all.”
In fact, fracking had been going on off the California coast for nearly two decades, though not with any frequency until the technology had improved. The companies doing it hadn’t bothered to make a distinction between fracking and the drilling that they had previously been doing, and the Department of the Interior hadn’t bothered to, either.
In one sense, said Segee, this isn’t a huge surprise. Offshore fracking may pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into the sea floor, but it also might not be any worse for marine life than other forms of drilling. “Offshore oil and gas is very dirty,” he said. “A lot of nasty stuff existed before fracking.”
Still, that’s no excuse not to study it more closely. As Alison Dettmer, deputy director of the California Coastal Commission, told the Associated Press back in February, the environmental impacts of fracking and other well stimulation techniques “are not well understood. To date, little data has been collected.”
The effects of this underwater gold rush on sea life remains mysterious. Some of the compounds found in the fluids used in fracking are known to be toxic to crustaceans and fish larvae – but the exact composition of fracking fluid is kept as much a secret at sea as it is on land. Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico is one of only two nurseries in the world for bluefin tuna.
These are risks we don’t have to take blindly. Especially now that deep sea fracking is being used to open new wells, instead of just to get the last bits of oil out of old ones, it would be completely within the power of the Department of the Interior to enact a moratorium on deepwater fracking until more research can be done. If it won’t do that, it could at least prohibit the use of categorical exclusions for the process — meaning it could say that offshore fracking ought to require the kind of disclosure, environmental review, and public participation that would help us all understand any potential risks. That would be fully in the spirit of the Obama administration’s announcement, post Deepwater Horizon, that it had “launched the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history.”
Any time new technology for getting a lot of oil out of the ground shows up, we ought to be asking the questions, what happens when that technology backfires? And how can we prepare for that mess? And then we ought to be researching the answers.
When the Deepwater Horizon blew, it took five months to stop the spill completely. For all the incredible research that had led to the rig being able to drill the deepest well in human history, there had not been much commensurate investigation into how to handle the accidents that might result from those advances.
“Every time we have a big disaster like the Deepwater Horizon, it’s because of some new, unproven, risky technology,” said Segee. “It happened in 1969 in Santa Barbara. It happened in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon. This is a good place to direct your attention, because it could happen again.”