Offshore Fracking Is Quietly on the Rise in the Gulf of Mexico

Environmental groups press for details of operations they fear are endangering marine life.

(Photo: Pat Canova/Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

A little-noticed expansion of hydraulic fracturing of deepwater oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico is unnerving environmental watchdogs as federal regulators keep a lid on information about the operations.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the injection of highly pressurized, chemical-laced water into wells. The technique has mainly been used onshore to extract oil and gas from subterranean rock formations and has sparked ongoing controversy, ranging from the fracking’s pollution of drinking water to its role in triggering earthquakes.

Now fracking is moving offshore. Unlike the thousands of highly visible drilling rigs that sit atop shale formations across the United States, deep ocean fracking is largely out of sight, out of mind.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about inland fracking in St. Tammany Parish, but nobody knew anything about what was going on in the Gulf,” said Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network. “There’s not much information out there about what is happening on these rigs. There have been no environmental reviews, and we don’t know what the risks are, the chemicals being used in the process, or what’s being discharged. These unknowns are unacceptable.”

An Associated Press investigation earlier this year uncovered a dozen offshore fracking operations in California and some 200 others in nearshore waters. The revelation got Henderson and others in the Gulf environmental community wondering if similar practices are being employed in their home waters. They say they’re still waiting for answers.

EPA officials declined interview requests, but spokesperson Robert Daguillard confirmed that the agency has issued permits for the discharge of pollutants from fracking operations in the Gulf of Mexico and California. “The general permits for California offshore facilities and for the Gulf of Mexico all include limits and monitoring requirements,” he said in an email.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil and gas drilling, also declined interview requests. But agency spokesperson Eileen Angelico said in an email that a fracking technology was used at 115 wells last year.

“These employ a lower volume of fluid and stay close to the wellbore ​when ​compared to the hydraulic fracturing operations onshore which use a larger volume of fluid and are targeted toward extended long-reach wells (unconventional reservoirs),” she said.

Industry experts estimate that 15 billion barrels of oil, worth $1.5 trillion, are floating 20,000 feet below the Gulf seabed. Improvements in fracking technology have put this giant pool of crude within reach, but new technology comes with new risks in a region still recovering from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Center for Biological Diversity analyzed 19 offshore California fracking sites and found at least 10 chemicals toxic to marine life.

“The general permit for offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico allows wastewater to be dumped into the ocean, including the fracking chemicals that are mixed with the wastewater,” said Miyoko Sakashita, a senior attorney with the environmental group and its oceans director. “This poses a severe threat to the Gulf’s important wildlife habitat—a core area for sperm whales and spawning area for rare bluefin tuna.”

“One thing in common between offshore fracking in California and the Gulf of Mexico is the lack of transparency,” Sakashita added. “At minimum the public and regulators should have access to three main pieces of information: when permits to frack are issued, what chemicals and in what quantities are used, and whether those chemicals are discharged into the Gulf. The EPA has been useless in protecting the public and the Gulf from the dangers of fracking.”

The EPA in May sought public comment on what information the industry must disclose about chemicals used in fracking. The agency has yet to take further action.