Thursday, August 11, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

SoCal oil spill smaller than initially reported, but remains source of political friction

Debates over the future of offshore drilling and fossil fuels persist while the cause of the oil spill remains officially unconfirmed.

(CN) — Officials narrowed their estimates of the extent of an oil spill off the Orange County coast on Thursday as the incident becomes a flashpoint in political debates over fossil fuels.

According to an Oct. 7 update from the Southern California Spill Response team, an estimated minimum of 24,696 gallons of oil were released during the spill that has spanned the Orange County coastline and caused extensive beach and harbor closures. The new minimum figure is a significant departure from previous estimates that approximated as much as 144,000 gallons flowed from the ruptured pipeline.

As of Friday morning, the spill response team said there were over 900 people involved in the response operations in Orange County and San Diego. They said more than 5,500 gallons of crude oil have been recovered by vessel and about 172,500 pounds of oily debris have been collected from the shorelines.

Though the extent of the damage caused by the pipeline is less severe than initially projected, the spill has re-energized the calls by some environmental activists and politicians to stop offshore drilling and turn away from fossil fuels.

An analysis released Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity found that “since 1986, nearly 1,400 oil and gas pipeline leaks, spills and other incidents in the Golden State have caused at least $1.2 billion in damages, as well as 230 injuries and 53 deaths.”

Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the Center of Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News that the oil platforms and pipelines off California’s coast are “well beyond the age that scientists say significantly increase the risk of spills due to corrosion and other problems.”

Monsell said the issues go beyond the risk of oil spills, pointing instead to the extensive use of fossil fuels.

“It’s not just old infrastructure that’s a problem — spills happen from new pipelines too and are a part of the ugly reality of oil drilling, no matter how old it is,” Monsell said. “Continued oil drilling exacerbates the climate crisis, harms communities with air and water pollution and threatens wildlife. It’s high time to rapidly phase it out.”  

Monsell called on President Joe Biden to fulfill his promise to “end all new leasing and wind down drilling on our public lands and waters.” She also said California Governor Gavin Newsom should halt offshore drilling in state waters near homes and schools.

The Build Back Better Act, the centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda, includes a ban on new offshore drilling.

Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat representing northern San Diego County and southern Orange County in Congress, has called for the ban to remain intact as the bill is negotiated in Congress.

“Seeing tar balls on North County beaches is incredibly frustrating,” Levin tweeted Friday morning. “For the sake of our planet and our beautiful beaches, it’s imperative that the Build Back Better Act maintains provisions I fought for to ban all new offshore drilling along our Southern California coast.”

According to the Southern California Spill Response team, 13 barrels of tar balls were recovered on Oct. 7.

Democrat Harley Rouda, who is campaigning to regain a coastal Orange County congressional seat that he lost in 2020 to Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, has also taken up the cause of eliminating offshore drilling. Rouda admonished Steel in a statement after documents first reported by Voice of OC showed Steel received up to $16,000 in oil production income last year. This includes money from the biggest customer of Amplify Energy, the company that owns the pipe that leaked.

The same report detailed Rouda owning more than $100,000 in stock of an investment fund that bets on future oil prices.  

The reduction in the estimated amount of oil spilled was accompanied by other encouraging signs on Friday. The city of Newport Beach announced the reopening of its harbor after a five-day closure. The city of Dana Point said in a statement that “there is no oil in Dana Point and all beaches are open.” The statement also said Dana Point Harbor is open. Earlier in the week, officials said that tendrils of the oil slick had drifted as far as the southern Orange County surf town.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s latest report tracking the effects of the incident on wildlife said the organization had recovered 35 birds, 10 of which were dead.

The precise cause of the spill remains undetermined, though some officials have coalesced around the theory that the Amplify Energy pipeline may have been struck by a ship’s anchor and subsequently dragged some distance.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said on Twitter late Friday afternoon that the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the pipeline and the vessels around it. She said they were “confident [a] large vessel anchor” was responsible for the damage and asked witnesses to send in information.

“They are thoroughly looking at every track line, interviewing personnel on vessels, poring through video, analyzing [the] pipe itself and reviewing the location of pipeline and changes in sea floor,” Foley tweeted.

Representatives for Foley, Levin, Rouda and Steel did not respond to requests for comment.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...