NEW ORLEANS -- Fracking chemicals were used on at least one of the four Shell oil wells in an offshore field that leaked nearly 90,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last month, but those chemicals were likely long gone before the spill, federal regulators tell WWL-TV.
The government approved the use of a “frac pack” on Well No. 8 in Shell’s Glider Field, about 95 miles south of Port Fourchon, La., on Feb. 12, 2015, according to summaries of drilling permits archived on the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement website.
BSEE spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said the government cannot definitively say which of the four wells that feed into the same location suffered the leak. But Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the leak was from a flow-line coming out of Well No. 4 and no oil from Well No. 8 spilled into the Gulf.
A “frac pack” is a method of sending chemicals into a well to help stimulate the flow of oil and gas trapped in subsea rock formations. A WWL-TV investigation in 2014 showed that such offshore fracking had been going on in the Gulf for decades with little notice, but had increased in recent years and was being used on 15 percent of wells drilled offshore in 2013.
Fracking has been a controversial way to extract natural gas from shale formations on land, with environmentalists complaining that the chemicals used in the process could infiltrate the public water supply. But the use of fracking techniques offshore has garnered far less attention, with environmental groups suing the government to force closer inspection of environmental impacts.
Unlike the controversial fracking operations used onshore, offshore frac packs employ a much smaller amount of chemicals and affect a relatively small area of rock and sand. Offshore fracking does not affect any drinking water supply, and it doesn’t involve breaking up solid bedrock because offshore oil and gas deposits are in already permeable rock and sand formations.
But offshore fracking is also far less transparent than its onshore cousin, which now involves full disclosure of the chemicals used at each fracking operation. The offshore industry does not disclose what chemicals it uses in the frac packs and government oversight agency, BSEE, has resisted disclosing exactly which offshore wells employ fracking. It also refuses to publicly release the full permits that would disclose details of each fracking operation, arguing that they contain too much proprietary information.
BSEE is investigating the Shell spill now, which was first discovered May 12 and left a 13-mile slick on the water surface before it was cleaned up. BSEE said it wants to determine how the subsea network of production lines started leaking and if new regulations need to be put in place to prevent such breaches in the future.
BSEE's Angelico acknowledged the frac pack used at one of the Shell wells, but also cautioned that the chemicals would have cycled through the formation and back up the well to the drilling platform in just four to five days after they were pumped down into the hole. She said it’s not clear exactly when the frac pack was used, but a modification to the permit was completed in April 2015, suggesting the work was done by then, more than a year before the spill happened.
That was little consolation to Jonathan Henderson of Vanishing Earth, an environmentalist who first raised concerns about Gulf fracking in 2014.
“This explanation by BSEE presents a whole other set of environmental issues that the public should be outraged about when it comes to fracking in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “One of those being that after those fracking chemicals were cycled back to Shell's rig, Shell eventually dumped those chemicals right back overboard into the Gulf. This in spite of no testing having been done to determine the impacts to the marine environment and ultimately human health as a possible consequence of eating Gulf seafood.”
Shell has a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency to dump a certain amount of the fracking chemicals overboard with water that’s produced during oil processing operations. That water is regularly tested to prove that it is not polluted beyond the limits established by the permit.
“The dumping of fracking chemicals into the Gulf is standard operating procedure by Shell and every other operator engaged in this extremely high-risk extraction, and BSEE lets it happen,” Henderson said. So, whether it was via the spill or the overboard permit, “either way those fracking chemicals ended up in the Gulf.”