California’s Oil Leak Is Part of a Larger Disaster

Oil purification on an Orange County beach.
Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images

I imagine it was strange and alarming for her to wake up that morning to the smell of petroleum blowing inland from the Pacific Ocean. Alarming for the usual reasons – no one gets happy smelling flammable gas in their house – but also strange in a way that only felt to Newport Beach. The coastal city in Orange County, 45 miles south of Los Angeles, was recently named the richest city in Southern California (late NBA star Kobe Bryant owned a palatial house here) and one of the richest in America. Bad things and bad smells from environmental disasters happen to a lot of people, but they shouldn’t happen to the people who live here.

But also strange and almost as alarming were the news descriptions of how local experts reacted to the pipeline rupture that surfaced between 25,000 and 132,000 gallons of oil offshore on October 1st. Newport Beach Harbor Master Paul Blank was “relieved that the spill was relatively contained,” according to the New York Times. “I live in fear that something like this will happen.” Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, a consortium of trained caretakers affiliated with UC Davis, told the Los Angeles Times that the number of oiled birds they had to rescue by Tuesday was “surprisingly low” – only a brown pelican had to be euthanized.

It is, of course, normal to be happy that something bad wasn’t worse, and so far the death toll from this particular leak is low enough to keep it off the list of historically great mass extinctions in the ocean, as per The Deepwater Horizon- Disaster in 2010. But when you read about what Ziccardi and his team are doing – dipping seabirds in tubs of detergent and complaining about how many sand crabs and their eggs are likely to become poisoned snacks for the other local wildlife – you can’t help but us feel that we have skewed our sense of “bad” to take into account how bad things are all the time.

We don’t yet know all the details about last Friday’s leak, but we do know that it isn’t even the worst leak to affect this particular stretch of the Southern California coast in many of us alive. In 1990 a tanker dumped more than three times as much oil – 416,000 gallons – into the ocean off the coast of Huntington Beach, the city just north of Newport Beach. Long-established residents who remember 1990 had to adjust their frustration accordingly: Do you think that’s bad? Try to spot 3,400 dying birds washing themselves in the sand.

However, reports of the recent oil spill read like a familiar study of negligence and ineptitude. According to the Associated Press, investigators are investigating the possibility that a passing cargo ship caught its anchor on a 4,000 foot section of the pipeline at a depth of 98 feet and bent it about 105 feet “like the string on a bow. “The unusual size of the gash that caused this alleged collision – about 13 inches, much smaller than most leaks made this way and characterized by gaping holes – could explain why investigators are still unsure whether it was caused by a massive anchor and why it took so long for the pipeline operator, Houston-based Amplify Energy, to know there was a leak in the first place. According to CNN, local residents reported seeing the beginnings of an oil spill on the surface of the water on Friday evening. But it wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. on Saturday that Amplify detected a pressure drop, suggesting oil was leaking, and 6 a.m. before the pipeline was shut down. Martyn Willsher, CEO of Amplify, told reporters that until 8:09 a.m., the company didn’t know that something had spilled into ocean and invaded several local wetlands.

There will be much blame and debate about who should be held responsible for the spill and even whether a criminal charge is warranted. But we are faced with a problem of overwhelming proportions and unruliness. There are many pipelines in the water off the Pacific coast: 200 miles alone in state-controlled waters serving 23 different platforms, more than half of which are no longer producing oil or are in the early stages of decommissioning. There are 1,200 active wells in state-controlled waters. Last year, California officials issued more permits to close existing wells than to open new ones, and Gavin Newsom has opened five since taking office in 2019, though he continues to push California on some of the country’s most ambitious climate goals, such as more gasoline cars by 2035 and no more oil production until 2045, according to the AP.

But much of the oil infrastructure that already exists is very old and very fragile by 40 to 60 years old – “Time bombs are waiting to blow,” says Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biodiversity, an environmental law group, describing this decaying network of pipes and platforms across from the New York Times. (The pipeline spilled last week serves platforms that have been in operation since the 1980s.) If anything, not many stakeholders are interested in paying the bill for the cleanup. It is estimated that closing the wells in a single offshore oil field near Long Beach will cost $ 800 million, less than half of which has been set aside by the state. “It boils down to finances and priorities,” California MP Patrick O’Donnell told the AP – demonstrating the maxim that if you want to make money on a problem over the long term, make sure it’s so expensive that no one can use it want to fix it.

And for a little more size, the Gulf of Mexico is home to 8,600 miles of active pipeline, a number that dwarfs that of the Pacific coast. Orange County’s crisis is big. In the national scheme it is a drop on a barrel.

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