The Oil Spill and Beyond
By Thomas Anderson

On October 2, 2021, an oil pipeline off the Orange County Coast was ruptured, presumably by the dragging anchor of a container ship, though a more precise cause is still under investigation. Approximately 25,000 gallons of oil leaked from the pipeline, narrowly missing the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve but fouling the coastline from the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach southward to Laguna Beach, to La Jolla and beyond. Containment and cleanup efforts were immediately deployed and fisheries were closed. Dozens of birds, mammals and fish were rescued, cleaned and released though 114 died. Amplify Energy, the Texas-based company that operates the pipeline is facing 14 lawsuits filed by businesses, residents, property owners and others affected by the spill. The lawsuits may be consolidated into a class-action case. The pipeline has remained shut down since the initial incident on October 2.

On November 20, crews scheduled for planned work on the pipeline observed and reported a sheen of 30’ by 70’ as they approached the area of the line. Divers conducting the planned assessments on the line then discovered small droplets on the syntho-glass wrap around the damaged pipeline. The old wrap was removed from the line and the new wrap was installed. No sheen or oil has been observed in the vicinity of the damaged pipeline since the report on November 20.

A work barge with divers remains on the scene of the pipeline rupture to monitor for sheens and conducts dives to check the wrap. Additionally, crews installed a pollution capture dome that sits over the area of the line that could capture any product that may escape from the line in the future. The dome can then be evacuated by a pump if there is product present. Personnel onboard the barge monitor the area within the dome by video camera. Unified Command, comprised of representatives of the United States Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, County of Orange, County of San Diego, and Amplify Energy, is monitoring the status of the pipeline since the oil will remain in the line until it is flushed as part of the repair process. Amplify has submitted their proposed repair plan to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for approval.

Response efforts continue from Long Beach to La Jolla to include Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Teams and work crews, monitoring, inspecting, and spot cleaning the beaches. Cleanup efforts are now focused on collecting tar balls along the shoreline. Task forces and hot shot teams remain staged in Orange County and San Diego County to respond to tar ball reports or as crews identify additional cleanup recommendations. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has determined that there is no further risk to public health related to seafood consumption. As a result, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife lifted the fisheries closure related to the pipeline incident on November 30, 2021.

On December 15, a federal grand jury charged three companies with criminal negligence in connection with the oil spill. The indictment alleges that Amplify Energy Corp. and two subsidiary firms, Beta Operating Co. and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co., illegally discharged oil into federal waters from the pipeline they operated off Huntington Beach. Among the charges against the three companies is the allegation that the 17.3-mileunderwater pipeline, running from a production and processing platform called Elly to the Port of Long Beach, was being operated by “an understaffed and fatigued crew,” who “had not been provided sufficient training regarding the pipeline’s automated leak detection system.”

The momentum for an end to offshore oil production has increased
At the October 19 Huntington Beach City Council Meeting, long-time Amigos member and former Huntington Beach Mayor and Council Member, Vic Leipzig, addressed the Council and spoke that the Amigos de Bolsa Chica supports the proposed resolution by the City of Huntington Beach calling for a ban on new offshore oil, gas drilling and similar exploration activities off our coasts, and that the Amigos encourage all council members to vote in favor of this common-sense measure, given the recent oil spill’s impact on Huntington Beach. Later that evening the Council voted 5-1 in favor of the resolution.

The Amigos have adopted the following position statement that is similar to the City’s proposed resolution: The recent oil spill devastated the shoreline of Huntington Beach, harming our environmental resources and our economy. Although oil did not directly enter the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, it came perilously close. The Amigos is immensely grateful that the state of California long ago prohibited the expansion of offshore oil production within state waters and we believe that a similar prohibition should be applied by the federal government to federal waters beyond the three-mile limit. The federal government should not encourage, but rather should prohibit, the expansion of oil production off the coast of California. Furthermore, the Amigos request both state and federal governments to develop a plan for the phase out of existing offshore facilities.

What needs to happen to decommission oil rigs
While the October spill brought the decommissioning of oil wells into the spotlight, actual progress towards this goal is slow. There is little economic incentive for oil companies to act quickly. The momentum to curtail oil production and transition toward an economy driven by renewable, carbon-free energy is growing, but as long as human beings accept the impacts of climate change that are already happening in order to keep driving cars, oil companies will continue pumping and transporting oil. The most serious change must begin with the consumer.

California has no authority over the 23 oil platforms in federal waters, which generally are marked by a three-mile buffer from the coast. Since offshore oil facilities in state waters have existing leases, shutting them down under the state’s eminent domain powers could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

California’s “Rigs to Reefs” program, an effort to transform oil platforms into underwater artificial reefs was signed into law in 2010. No oil company has yet applied. To qualify for California’s Rigs to Reefs program, oil companies must prove that partially removing the oil platforms would provide a benefit to the marine environment, including sea life. The top of the structures, some of which stretch more than 1,000 feet down to the seafloor, must be removed down to 85 feet below the surface to allow for ships to pass overhead. This would not necessarily benefit sea creatures that thrive near the water’s surface, because everything above 85 feet below sea level would be removed. Oil companies would remain responsible for capping all of their wells.

The federal government has a similar program, created in 1984, that runs in coordination with states that rim the Gulf of Mexico. Under that program, oil companies are allowed to dump the remains of oil platforms in designated “reef zones” in the gulf, providing a habitat for sea life and a benefit to recreational anglers and the commercial seafood industry.

In both State and Federal programs, oil companies receive taxpayer-funded incentives to remove parts or all of the rigs and can save oil companies millions of dollars, offering the incentive to cease offshore oil production that appears be declining. All oil producers, when they sign a lease, promise to remove their derricks and restore the ocean floor to its natural state. After extracting millions of dollars of oil from state or federal lands, Rigs to Reefs programs are a gift of taxpayer dollars to cap the wells.