The US Department of the Interior must reveal records on the use of fracking technology in the Gulf of Mexico under a legal settlement with an environmental group filed in federal court on June 1.
The settlement requires the two agencies that regulate offshore oil and gas production in federal waters to release documents on fracking in the Gulf over a nine-month period, beginning in July. The Center for Biological Diversity originally requested the records more than eight months ago under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Once released, the records will also help satisfy a separate FOIA request for Gulf fracking permits filed by Truthout in November 2014.
"Offshore fracking has been shrouded in secrecy, but this settlement will finally force the government to tell us where oil companies are using this toxic technique," said Kristen Monsell, a Center attorney. "Fracking pollution is a huge threat to marine animals, and the high pressures used to frack offshore wells increase the risk of another devastating oil spill."
In 2014, regulators released an incomplete list of 115 wells in the Gulf of Mexico where a fracking technology known as "frack packing" was deployed during 2013, but the full extent of offshore fracking is currently unknown. Frack packing is more established and typically smaller in scale than the large, horizontal operations that have ignited a national controversy onshore, but the oil industry and regulators have indicated that such unconventional technology is deployed in the Gulf.
Industry officials have also said they plan to increase the use of fracking techniques to exploit wells in deep Gulf waters, and with more than 4,000 platforms in the region, the Center claims that the scope offshore fracking could be "staggering."
Offshore fracking involves forcing water and chemicals at high pressure under the sea floor to fracture rocks and release oil and gas from deposits and existing wells with dwindling reserves.
Oil and gas companies are allowed to dump fracking chemicals mixed with wastewater overboard at offshore platforms, but the government does not report how much fracking chemicals are being dumped into the Gulf because it is not tracking such discharges, according to the Center. Pollution permits for Gulf oil drillers do not cover the myriad of chemicals often involved in fracking.
The Center filed its original request in October and sued the two regulatory agencies in January for failing to issue a timely response. The original request asked for documents going back to 1990, which the regulators argued would take more than 20 years to dig up. The Center agreed to narrow the scope of its request to records produced between 2010 and October 2014 as part of the settlement.
Truthout filed a much narrower FOIA request for recent Gulf fracking permits and permit applications in November, and the Center has criticized the government for dragging its feet in responding to both requests.
"It seems like offshore fracking activities have been kept secret, and it makes one wonder what the agencies are trying to hide; perhaps it is just their own failure to adequately regulate the oil industry," Center attorney Miyoko Sakashita told Truthout in April.
In response to Truthout's request, regulators said that they do not keep a list of permits that include fracking operations, and while oil and gas companies may submit information on fracking when applying to complete operations at a well, there are "no designated fields on any of our forms specifically for hydraulic fracturing information."
The regulators also said that federal law allows them to keep permits and applications under wraps for 90 days after oil or gas starts flowing from a well, or two years if the well does not go into production, presumably to protect proprietary business information.
Earlier this year, the Center and a Santa Barbara-based environmental group filed separate lawsuits against the federal government for allegedly approving fracking operations in the Santa Barbara Channel without reviewing the potential impacts fracking could have on marine life and coastal communities. A Truthout investigation brought widespread attention to fracking operations off the California coast in 2013.