Environmentalists Uncover Documents Revealing Feds Quietly Permitted Gulf Fracking

Federal regulators quietly gave the green light to more than 1,200 oil company fracking operations in the Gulf of Mexico between 2010 and 2014, according to documents environmentalists obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

At least 630 wells were fracked along the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during that four-year period, and more than 76 billion gallons in fracking waste were dumped into the Gulf in 2014 alone, the documents show.

They were obtained as part of an agreement between the federal government and the Center for Biological Diversity to settle a lawsuit challenging the government's failure to disclose documents under the FOIA detailing the scope of offshore fracking.

The center in turn shared the data obtained with Courthouse News Service.

Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and BP are among the companies fracking in the deep waters off the Gulf Coast, according to a separate document, which was obtained by Al Jazeera and placed online.

"The Obama administration is essentially letting oil companies frack at will in Gulf ecosystems and dump billions of gallons of oil waste into coastal waters," said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an online statement. "Every offshore frack increases the risk to wildlife and coastal communities, yet federal officials have been just rubber-stamping this toxic practice in the Gulf of Mexico for years."

The federal government has been permitting offshore fracking in the Gulf with no site-specific analysis of the threats to imperiled species or the environment, and also without public involvement, according to the documents and a news release from the center.

The government has yet to release all the documents, so the full scope of offshore fracking is likely even larger, the center says. For example, at least one of the wells connected to the flow line involved in a nearly 90,000-gallon oil spill last month was fracked, according to federal data.

The federal government approved the frack job in 2015.

Offshore fracking blasts vast volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals beneath the seafloor at pressures high enough to fracture rocks and release oil and gas. Critics of the practice say it increases environmental damages beyond those of conventional oil drilling by increasing pollution and the risks of oil spills and earthquakes.

Oil and gas companies are allowed to dump fracking chemicals mixed with wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico. An analysis conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity of federal documents revealed oil companies operating in federal waters off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana discharged more than 76 billion gallons of chemical-laced water in 2014 alone.

"Offshore fracking is an inherently dangerous activity that simply doesn't belong in the Gulf of Mexico," Monsell said. "And the federal government certainly has no right to give the oil industry free rein to frack our oceans — or to keep coastal communities in the dark about this toxic industrial activity."

At least 10 fracking chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including sea otters and fish, scientists working for the center say. Other scientists have identified some common fracking chemicals to be among the most toxic in the world to marine animals, according to the center's data.

Representatives from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management did not immediately respond to a phoned request for comment.

The bureau's online catalog of public information requests, data files, reports and maps for the Gulf of Mexico region said it was last updated April 16, 2009.The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's website has the same catalog of public information requests—from April 16, 2009—posted as the most recent. A representative from the BSEE also did not immediately return a call for comment.

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