Deep fracking in the Gulf of Mexico — what could go wrong?

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Recently, I’ve been highly focused on one story in particular: The Gulf of Mexico remains under extreme stress. Some of the problems go back a number of years — particularly the oxygen-deprived, so-called “dead zones in the Gulf that have grown to the size of the state of Connecticut and had a severe impact on our fisheries. This seemingly intractable crisis has defied calls for action, as farming and overdevelopment in the Mississippi River basin increases the levels of runoff containing nitrogen and pollutants, and regulators seem powerless to stop it.

There are other pollution threats as well. Decades of off-shore drilling have led to a series of accidents and leaks — large and small. The game-changer, of course, has been the BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe of 2010. More than four years later, the Gulf — one of America’s most vital natural resources — is still under seige from the spill, with tar balls assaulting our beaches on a daily basis, oyster harvests and fishing hauls still down considerably, oil now linked to lesions and other diseases in fish, and valuable coastal wetlands shrinking at a faster rate than ever.

The BP oil spill should have been a wake-up call, but America’s unending thirst for fossil fuels has completely trumped any pressures for a new era of environmental protections. Instead, offshore exploration and drilling in the Gulf is approaching record levels, even through the technology to prevent blowouts and the level of government regulation has changed little since 2010. Now comes confirmation that Gulf drillers are using newer and environmentally riskier fracking techniques at these deepwater sites, in order to squeeze out every last drop of oil.

This week, an explosive story from Bloomberg News pointed out, “Energy companies are taking their controversial fracking operations from the land to the sea — to deep waters off the U.S., South American and African coasts.” Here are some excerpts from their expose that relate directly to fracking in sensitive Gulf waters:

… While fracking is also moving off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, the big play is in the Gulf of Mexico, where wells more than 100 miles from the coastline must traverse water depths of a mile or more and can cost almost $100 million to drill.

… Fracking in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to grow by more than 10 percent over a two year period ending in 2015, said Douglas Stephens, president of pressure pumping at Baker Hughes, which operates about a third of the world’s offshore fracking fleet.

… At sea, water flowing back from fracked wells is cleaned up on large platforms near the well by filtering out oil and other contaminants. The treated wastewater is then dumped overboard into the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, where dilution renders it harmless, according to companies and regulators.

… Offshore fracking in the Gulf of Mexico should also be subject to a detailed environmental review, said Tony Knap, director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University. The concern is that chemicals used in the fracking fluid that’s released in the Gulf could harm sea life or upset the ecosystem, said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“One of the key problems is nobody has really looked at the environmental impacts of offshore fracking, and we find that incredibly concerning,” she said in an interview. “Nobody knows what they’ve been discharging and in what amounts.”

To say that I agree with Mr. Sakashita would be a gross understatement. On land, Big Oil and Gas rushed into fracking in the mid-2000s with little understanding of the risks, and little regulatory oversight. The costs have been disastrous — pollution from poorly designed wells and from fracking fluids with undisclosed toxins, dangerous releases of methane into the air and even earthquakes undergrounds. But those risks are magnified by many, many times in the harsh off-shore environment of the Gulf, under a mile of water and far from land. It’s clear that no one has done much study of the impact of dumping toxic wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico, but based on past experience we know that it will not be good, and probably much worse than big business and the government is telling us. In 25 years of suing Big Oil companies I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas come down the pike, but fracking the Gulf of Mexico may be the worst.

Check out the bombshell report from Bloomberg News on fracking in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-07/deep-water-fracking-next-frontier-for-offshore-drilling.html

Part 1 of my special report, “The Gulf Is Still Sick,” from July 28: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/in-depth-the-gulf-is-still-sick/

Here’s Part 2 of my special report, from Aug. 4: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/in-depth-the-gulf-is-still-making-marine-life-and-people-sick/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2014 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Hello Mr. Smith, I just watched ‘The Big Fix’ and saw your segments. Truly saddening and enough to make anyone’s blood boil. I’m a 1L at a small school in Phoenix and am hoping to make environmental law my specialty. I plan on practicing in southern California upon bar passage. This area is one my prime motivations for attending law school and I don’t want to get out of school just to become a number in the job market. If you have any suggestions for me as to how to position myself to have some, or any, impact at all in the field, I would deeply appreciate them.
    Sincerely,
    Steve Baker

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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