Around 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, October 2, 2021, the United States Coast Guard was notified that Amplify Energy’s 17-mile San Pedro Pipeline, off California’s Huntington Beach coastline, was leaking. By Sunday morning, birds and fish were washing up onshore, covered in oil, and the beaches were closed to a concerned public. Days later, there are still more questions than answers about what is already shaping up to be one of California’s largest oil spills in the state’s history, having already resulted in at least 126,000 gallons of crude spreading across over 8,300 acres. Perhaps the most pressing question is what the U.S. is going to do—and what can it do—in order to prevent similar oil spills in the future.
Already, local residents are feeling the effects of the spill, complaining of a strong smell that burns when inhaled. Indeed, Orange County immediately released a health advisory recommending that any residents who encountered contaminants seek medical attention. And the effects are not limited to the physical—there have already been extensive economic effects, as the spill occurred in the middle of the annual multi-day Pacific Airshow that 1.5 million people had gathered along the shore to watch, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars for the local economy.
This is only the latest of several catastrophic oil spills off of California’s infamous coastline over several decades. For instance, in 1969, 4.2 million gallons of crude spilled and spread across the coast off Santa Barbara.A particularly notable oil spill occurred in 1990, when 400,000 gallons of crude covered Huntington Beach’s coastline when an oil tanker’s hull was punctured by its own anchor. This spill resulted in lawsuits, immediate regulatory action, legislative changes, and the creation of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, now a division of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is also assisting in the current San Pedro Pipeline cleanup. Since then, there have been sizable spills off the California coast in 2007 and 2015. Notably, no new offshore drilling has been approved in federal waters off of California’s coastline since 1984.
Yet, according to environmental groups, a large part of the problem is, simply, any reliance on fossil fuels for energy use. Moreover, John Fleming, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program, which is assisting with the cleanup, noted that the infrastructure and platforms involved in the spill are up to four decades old, explaining, “They are not meant to last that long. As long as we have old infrastructure in place, this will continue to happen.” Amplify Energy’s CEO, Martyn Willsher, however, claims that the San Pedro pipeline is inspected every other year and has been “meticulously maintained,” noting that the most recent inspection occurred last week. According to one news outlet, however, a 2012 plan prepared by the pipeline’s operator, Beta Offshore, indicated that a full cut in the pipeline a few miles from the shore was capable of releasing roughly 126,000 gallons of oil—which is exactly the estimated size of the current spill.
The massive extent of the spill has required all-hands-on-deck assistance from federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as local conservation groups, with the U.S. Coast Guard leading the efforts, assisted by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. For instance, the National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to collect critical information and assess the origins of the leak. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is leading the wildlife response, as the nearby 25-acre Talbert Marsh, an ecological reserve home to dozens of different types of rare birds, has been infiltrated by the spill. Even local fire departments are helping to stem the damage, as California’s have specialized marine safety units.
U.S. Congresswoman Michelle Steel, who represents a district that is part of the affected area, immediately requested that the federal government assist in recovery efforts for the current spill. Just a few weeks ago, on September 23, California Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $15 billion to fight fossil-fuel-induced climate change, signing this package into law in front of Sequoia National Park as wildfires raged, only emphasizing the multiple environmental disasters currently facing California. Moreover, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a bill this past January that would permanently ban the Department of the Interior from allowing new leases enabling the exploration, development, and production of oil along the West Coast. And the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized the need for the development of alternative forms of energy, and hopes to include support for its expansion in the infrastructure bill currently being negotiated in Congress.
Despite these goals and mitigation efforts, a local resident crystallizes the overarching and ever-present issue pertaining to these spills that California has experienced time and again: “I’m not surprised and I’m not shocked or anything like that. It’s just odd that it happens in this day and age. With all the technology we have, why couldn’t they prevent it?”
Which leads to several inevitable questions: Can we prevent massive oil spills, using technology or otherwise? And, if not, will we end our reliance on fossil fuels, and by when? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the longer we wait to address them, the bigger this existential threat will become.