Potential Mining Acidization Raises Environmental Concern for UCSB Coast


By Giuseppe Ricapito
Isla Vista Beat Reporter

The Environmental Defense Center, a local nonprofit corporation, released an investigative report on Tuesday, Feb. 11, alleging that Venoco, Inc., an oil and gas exploration and production company, utilized the process of wellbore matrix acidization at Platform Holly, which is about two miles off the Goleta Coast and the University of California, Santa Barbara campus.

Matthew Buggert, a fourth-year UCSB environmental studies and psychology double major and intern for the EDC, pulled electronic and hard copies of oil well reports from the Department of Conservation Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) compiled at Platform Holly. The reports, which detail at least 10 occurrences of “acid job” or “acidize” (and one directly stating “pump acid stimulation job”) since 2006, also itemize tens of thousands of gallons of hydrochloric acid (HCl), hydrofluoric acid (HF) and ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) used, per instance, in the process.

Matrix acidizing is a process by which these chemicals are injected into a wellbore (a drilled section of underwater rock) to increase the permeability of a formation, and, by extension, the productivity of a well. The three step process—a preflush of HCl, a “main flush” or “treatment” of HCl and/or HF, and a post flush of NH4Cl brine—dissolves millimeter-thin channels in the rock, but also potentially displaces un-reacted acids and reaction substances into the surrounding environment.

“Acidizing and potential fracking from oil platforms in our waters is a significant threat to UCSB students and we should be concerned about it,” said Buggert, adding that though fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, occurred at “other” platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, he did not believe it was occurring at Platform Holly.

In a brief email statement, Venoco spokesperson Lisa Rivas denied the EDC’s allegations, instead noting that the use of acids was standard industry procedure.

“Venoco does not hydraulically fracture or matrix acidize any wells on Platform Holly,” she said. “Acid has been used to clean the well bores drilled from Platform Holly for several decades. This is a process that has been used in onshore and offshore oil wells around the world for generations.”

But Buggert’s claim—that “there is a very blurred line between cleaning and acid stimulation”—is substantiated by the consistent use of acid at the platform site. The data strongly suggests the use of acid, but varying points of view can contextualize the evidence based on the degree of its perceived effect on the surrounding environment.

For example, acid can be used to repair wormhole damage caused by drilling, completion fluids, or chemical precipitates. But matrix acidizing (which occurs below the fracture pressure of the rock) and fracture acidizing (occurs at pressure, and, like fracking, breaks the rock formation to allow access to oil and gas) also involve nearly the very same combination of chemicals. In any of the given cases, a potent chemical cocktail comes into contact with the natural environment.

Buggert reinforced the notion of environmental protection, noting that many “threatened and endangered species,” including sea otter, abalone, and humpback whales, are frequently present in the channel.

“There is no information available about how it affects the water quality, marine life, or marine systems,” he said.

But Rivas’ statement suggests an alternate narrative than that of the EDC.

“Platform Holly is a zero-discharge platform—meaning nothing is released to the ocean, not even rain water off the decks,” she said.

This recent investigation builds off precedent concerns of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill as well as the EDC’s 2013 report, “Dirty Water: Fracking Offshore California.” As outlined in their website, the EDC is a non-profit corporation set with “protecting and enhancing” the local environment “through education, advocacy and legal action.”

EDC Senior Attorney Brian Segee conveyed the seriousness of the recent inquiry, but also confirmed the organization’s lack of direct regulatory power.

“Right now there’s no specific lawsuit effort,” he said. “We’re putting [the investigation] into policy recommendations at a state level.”

But Segee also asserted, above all else, the immediate necessity for a ban on fracking and acidization along the California Coast.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions about the risks of fracking and acidization on the environment and public health,” he said. “In the face of uncertainty, the proven approach…is to wait for the results of these studies and not rush headlong without answers to these questions.”

Platform Holly, the only offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel under the jurisdiction of California rather than the federal government, is pursuant to recent legislation that sets new regulations for oil and gas companies drilling in state waters. SB-4, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2013, mandates a permitting system for fracking and acidizing proposals and also compels companies to publicly disclose chemicals used in the mining process, among other requirements. Segee noted, however, that the law is currently operating in an interim phase until its full implementation in January 2015.

Rivas acknowledged Venoco’s full cooperation with regulatory procedures, the previous information notwithstanding.

“All of Venoco’s offshore and onshore operations are highly regulated and we pride ourselves on adherence to all state and local regulations,” she said. “The regulators approve all Venoco’s plans for oil development and receive regular reports on all our operations.”

But the EDC representatives still expressed concern with corporate practice surrounding the issue of environmental protection.

“In terms of the implementation of SB4…for the industry to characterize something as ‘not acidization’ subjects them to less regulatory oversight” said Segee.

While also referencing the possible use of carcinogens and toxins left undisclosed by corporations (pursuing the insularity allowed by “trade secrets”), Buggert captured the core inquiry of the investigation.

“The environmental concern is that it hasn’t been regulated,” Bugert said. “We are just not sure where these acids are going.”