California regulators have launched an investigation into offshore hydraulic fracturing after revelations that the practice had quietly occurred off the coast for the past two decades.
The California Coastal Commission promised to look into the extent of so-called fracking in federal and state waters and any potential risks.
Hydraulic fracturing has been a standard tool for reinvigorating oil and gas wells for over 60 years. While it gets headlines as something new, it decidedly is not. What is new is its use in combination with horizontal drilling as a part of the initial well design, rather than as as a rework tool for an aging field.
What California regulators are really saying is that they have known about and been comfortable with this process for decades**, but what has changed is not the technology but public opinion. A small group of environmentalists have tried to, without much scientific basis, demonize this procedure not because they oppose it per se but because they are opposed to an expansion of hydrocarbon availability, which they variously blame for either CO2 and global warming or more generally the over-industrialization of the world.
So given this new body of public opinion, rather than saying that "sure, fracking has existed for decades and we have always been comfortable with it", the regulators instead act astonished and surprised -- "we are shocked, shocked that fracking is going on in this establishment" -- and run around in circles demonstrating their care and concern. Next step is their inevitable trip to the capital to tell legislators that they desperately need more money and people to deal with their new responsibility to carefully scrutinize this decades-old process.
**Postscript: If regulators are not familiar with basic oil-field processes, then one has to wonder what the hell they are going with their time. It's not like anyone in the oil business had any reason to hide fracking activity -- only a handful of people in the country would have known what it was or cared until about 5 years ago.