New information about California’s biggest oil spill in decades continues to emerge, as federal and state officials scramble to contain the damage and lawmakers call for changes and accountability.
Since the spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County was discovered on Saturday, the slick has expanded to cover 34 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. On Monday evening, officials said the estimated number of gallons spilled had been updated from 476,962 litres to 545,099 litres. To truly understand the scope of the damage — and the heroic efforts to contain the spill — you need to see it from the above.
The Oil Spill Is ‘an Ecological Disaster’ in the Making
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County on Monday to help mobilize state resources to contain the damage. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the federal government had sent 14 boats and four aircraft to help with cleanup and recovery, and more than 11,356 l of oil had been recovered so far. But there’s still more oil out there, and containing it is of utmost importance to the wetlands and beaches just onshore from the spill.
“We are in the midst of a potential ecological disaster,” Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr told reporters. “Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil.”
Sensitive Marshlands Are at Risk
Wildlife officials reported Monday that four birds had been recovered from the oil, and one pelican had to be euthanised due to its injuries. Four birds may not seem like a lot, but the spill’s full impact on wildlife might not be limited to birds rescued from the initial spill site. Huntington Beach is surrounded by habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife, which continue to be at risk from the spreading oil.
A 3.2-kilometre stretch of marshes in Huntington Beach are also crucial stops along the Pacific Flyway. Upwards of 90 species of birds make a pit stop in the marshes during their seasonal migration between the tropics and the poles. The state set up more than 1,500 metres of booms around the spill area to try and keep oil from spreading into those sensitive habitats. However, on Monday, oil had begun to seep past the booms into the marshes.
Offshore Oil Is Still a Danger Despite State Lease Ban
The spill was caused by a rupture in a pipeline around 7.2 kilometres offshore, which is connected to a rig in the Beta Field, an offshore oilfield that has been in operation since the early 1980s. Environmental groups have raised the alarm for years about the condition of much of the offshore infrastructure in the region.
California blocked new offshore drilling in state waters after the disastrous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which spilled some 132 million litres of oil into the ocean and created a 56-kilometre slick in the ocean. The state permanently prohibited new leasing in its waters in 1994. But this spill occurred in federal waters, at a rig that had been active since before the state leasing ban. What’s more, leasing in federal waters off the coast isn’t expressly prohibited.
‘Where You Drill, You Spill’
The Trump administration put forward a controversial plan in 2018 to expand drilling in Pacific waters. While Trump never went forward with offering leases, the Huntington Beach spill is spurring California lawmakers in Washington, DC, to call attention to legislation they proposed earlier this year that would permanently ban drilling in federal waters along the West Coast.
“Where you drill you spill, and once again the inevitable has happened,” Rep. Jared Huffman, who introduced the legislation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, tweeted Monday. “We cannot keep allowing Big Oil to cause these ecological disasters. It’s time my legislation to ban offshore drilling becomes law.”
A Small Company Caused the Big Spill
The rig connected to the faulty pipeline was operated by Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Houston-based Amplify Energy. Officials said that they were investigating whether or not a ship anchor striking the pipeline some 24 to 31 metres underwater was responsible for the breach.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that Amplify has a history of regulatory issues and bankruptcy troubles. Beta Offshore alone had 125 noncompliance violations on record issued by federal inspectors. Shares of Amplify had dropped by nearly half Monday.
The Spill Shows Small Companies’ Risky Drilling Practices
Smaller oil drillers have been purchasing rigs in California’s oilfields from larger companies in recent years and those smaller companies seem to be more prone to accidents, Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science at the University of Maryland who was also on a commission formed to make recommendations in the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, told the Times. “They don’t necessarily have the resources to stay on top of safety and respond quickly.”
‘They Should Not Be Allowed To Go Anywhere Near That Pipeline’
Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher told reporters at a press conference on Monday that the company was working to find the source of the leak. However, Orange County Attorney General Todd Spitzer, in the same press conference, seemed to go on the offence against the company.
“They should not be able to go anywhere near that pipeline,” Spitzer said of Amplify. Spitzer also said that “nothing is off the table yet” in terms of holding Amplify legally responsible for the spill and damage.