California lawmakers push to ban new drilling in wake of massive oil spill

October 5, 2021
In The News

LOS ANGELES — California lawmakers demanded a stop to oil drilling off their state’s coast Tuesday as outrage grew over an enormous oil spill and new questions and details emerged about the source and reporting of the leak.

With as many as 144,000 gallons of oil continuing to spread through the waters off Orange County, legislators said they would push to block any new federal drilling leases in the Pacific Ocean along the West Coast. A moratorium on new leases in California’s state waters — which extend three miles from shore — has been in place since a massive 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara.

“The majority of Californians oppose offshore drilling and with aging infrastructure, we’re likely to see more oil spills in the future if we don’t make a change now,” California Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Julia Brownley said in a statement. “It’s time to put an end to offshore drilling in California. Our environment and our communities depend on it.”

Legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to ban new federal oil leases off the entire West Coast could be wrapped into the mammoth budget bill Democrats are fighting over on Capitol Hill. State lawmakers said they would be pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who declared a state of emergency in the area Monday night, to take additional action where possible.

Newsom vowed Tuesday that California would block any new efforts to drill off its coast in state or federal waters but acknowledged that getting rid of drilling operations that are already in place is much harder.

“The deeper question is how do you transition out and still respect the workforce. … We have to map that out with more clarity and more nuance, not just platitudes,” Newsom said at a news conference in Huntington Beach on Tuesday afternoon.

Indeed, the spill from Amplify Energy’s oil platform underscored the limits to what elected officials can do to halt offshore drilling. Although no new drilling leases have been issued in decades off the California coast, around two dozen sites remain operational -- and they can keep operating in perpetuity even if no new leases are approved, according to environmental groups.

For years, the visible drilling rigs, pumps and refineries that line portions of the Southern California coastline have stood in strange contrast to the palm trees and surf culture for which the area is known.

“You’re not going to completely eliminate the threat of leaks in pipelines around existing operations until existing operations cease,” said Damon Nagami, senior attorney and director of the Southern California ecosystems project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “So that’s our long-term goal. How to get there is a different question.”

It’s unclear precisely how much crude spilled into the ocean before the leak was detected and stopped over the weekend, but officials say it could be as much as 144,000 gallons.

On the shores on and around Huntington Beach, impacts of the spill continued to spread Tuesday. The city of Huntington Beach announced that the first oiled birds were being rescued and stabilized at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center. Miles of beaches remained closed to the public, as were fisheries. Boats were blocked from entering or exiting the harbors at Dana Point and Newport Beach, the largest recreational harbor in Southern California. On shore, crews remained at work scooping up globs of oil from the sand.

“What I’m seeing outside my window right now is so costly to our environment and to our economy,” Assembly member Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), whose district includes Huntington Beach, said in a phone interview. “I hope this terrible disaster does not just end up in the history books but leads to real change.”

Coast Guard and Amplify Energy officials said at a news conference Tuesday that divers, along with a remote operating vehicle, had identified the likely source of the spill: a 13-inch split in a portion of pipeline around 4.5 miles offshore that had been displaced 105 feet from where it was supposed to be. The entire pipeline is more than 17 miles long; the displaced section is around 4,000 feet long, officials said.

“The pipeline has essentially been pulled like a bowstring,” said Martyn Willsher, chief executive of Amplify Energy. “It is a 16-inch steel pipeline. It is a half-inch thick and covered by concrete. For it to be displaced 105 feet is not common.”

Willsher, along with state and federal officials, had previously identified a ship’s anchor as a likely cause of the split. But on Tuesday, officials declined to speculate further amid the ongoing investigation.

Questions on when the spill was detected emerged after the Los Angeles Times reported, based on state documents, that officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were aware of a possible spill Friday night. Even though residents began reporting suspicious smells, the spill was not officially reported or made public until Saturday morning.

Willsher reiterated Tuesday that his company was not aware of the leak until Saturday morning and responded within a half-hour.

In a joint statement Tuesday, the Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Amplify Energy said the federal government’s National Response Center “received a report of an unknown sheen of unknown source on Friday evening.”

“These types of reports are common and in many cases, the sheen reported can be natural seepage of oil or sheen that is never located,” the statement said, adding that early Saturday morning satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed “a possible oil anomaly.”

Crews from Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response investigated before sunrise, but conditions were foggy and the crew returned to shore, officials said. Once the fog lifted, they added, personnel from the Coast Guard and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office went to investigate.

“On Saturday morning, the company confirmed a release of oil from a pipeline,” the statement said.

Officials were pressed repeatedly Tuesday to clarify exactly who knew or was notified about the sheen Friday night and why action was not taken more quickly. Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore, a leader of the response, insisted that the agency followed all its normal procedures and did little to elaborate beyond the joint statement.

A federal criminal investigation is underway, and the Orange County district attorney has also threatened to bring charges if possible.

Pressed on exactly what his company knew about the timeline, Willsher said, “We will turn over all the information to the investigative authorities.”

Lieu said in a statement that he intended to press officials about how a delay in reporting might have occurred.

“It is distressing that there may have been a delay in reporting the oil spill to the public,” he said. “Every hour an oil spill goes unnoticed or unreported translates to that much more oil spilling into our oceans, killing wildlife and destroying habitats.”

“Once again we are seeing a horrifying disaster unfolding off our coast with the heartbreaking images of blackened beaches and wetlands, oil slicked birds and fish floating in a sheen of oil,” California Coastal Commission Chair Steve Padilla said in a statement. “Sadly, the images of these kinds of environmental tragedies will continue until we get drilling and oil production out of the ocean.”