The massive oil spill off Huntington Beach could become the kind of environmental disaster, played out along California’s beloved seashore, that coalesces opposition to offshore oil production.
It can be a messy industry, and previous oil spills have sparked outrage and driven policy and reforms. California, in its protest against leasing in federal waters, has over the decades enacted laws to make that offshore crude more difficult and expensive to transport to the coast, and also imposed tougher penalties for spills.
Yet California remains, in its essence, an oil state — ranking seventh in the nation for production. Huntington Beach is a prime example of California’s complicated relationship with oil. It dubs itself Surf City USA, and has built an economy utterly dependent on clean beaches and water. Yet offshore oil platforms are visible from the city’s famous seashore, and Huntington Beach High School’s sports teams are called The Oilers.
Huntington Beach is especially vulnerable to spills because of its cluster of six large oil platforms offshore. In all, California has 19 offshore oil leases in state waters and 23 facilities in federal waters.
The last major spill off Huntington Beach was nearly 32 years ago — in almost the same spot. That spill occurred when an oil tanker, the American Trader, ran aground on its anchor nearshore, spilling about 400,000 gallons of British Petroleum crude oil into the ocean. Now it’s happened again.
What happened, when and where?
The spill began about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, where Amplify Energy, one of the largest producers of oil in Southern California, owns three platforms in an oil field known as the Beta Field.
The oil leaked from the San Pedro Pipeline, which stretches 17 miles, connecting one of the offshore platforms, known as Elly, to a pumping station at the port of Long Beach.
Constructed in 1980, the rig is nine miles offshore in waters that are 265 feet deep. It processes crude oil collected from two other nearby platforms in the Beta Field. Those two platforms produce up to 8,000 barrels of crude — 336,000 gallons — per day, according to the Amplify Energy Co.’s spill response plan.
The cause and the exact timing of the spill is unknown. The Coast Guard was first notified at 9:10 a.m. Saturday. By Sunday, oil and petroleum-coated birds began to appear on Huntington Beach’s shoreline, which local officials closed to the public.
As much as 3,111 barrels of oil — roughly 130,000 gallons — may have spilled from the pipeline, according to Martyn Willsher, president and CEO of Amplify Energy Corp.
Willsher said a ship’s anchor striking the pipeline was “one of the distinct possibilities” for the cause of the spill. The Coast Guard is investigating. The area is a busy corridor for ships serving the nearby ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, but they are allowed specific spots for dropping anchors that are supposed to avoid pipelines.
The Elly platform is in federal waters, which are defined as more than three miles offshore, and the leases are managed by the Department of the Interior. The platform, which is an offshore processing plant that removes seawater from crude oil, takes in oil from as many as 70 wells.
What do we know about this company?
Houston-based Amplify Energy owns the platform, which is operated by a subsidiary, Beta Operating Company.
Amplify Energy Corp. reorganized in 2018 after bankruptcy and had been attempting to repair and upgrade its infrastructure, which can be easily corroded in an ocean environment. Much of the offshore field’s pipelines are decades old.
Beta Operating was fined by federal regulators in 2013 and 2014 for violations that led to the injury of workers. The company also was issued 125 violations found by federal inspectors.
What’s at stake?
On Sunday, an estimated 13 square miles of ocean surface were slicked with oil. And the oil is still moving south with the currents, reaching as far south as Dana Point today. Sticky balls and patties of oil are tainting the sand of local beaches, mostly in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, officials said Monday afternoon.
“It is an area from Huntington Beach down to just south of Dana Point that extends a couple of miles offshore and within that there are ribbons or pools of oil,” said Rebecca Ore, US Coast Guard Captain of the Port.
Birds are at high risk, as well as marine mammals and bottom-dwelling creatures. Crude oil can break down the natural waterproofing of birds’ feathers and damage their internal organs. Four birds coated in oil have already been found, including one brown pelican that was euthanized onsite after sustaining wing injuries.
California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has deployed booms to try and stem the flow of oil into sensitive stretches of the coast, including one of Southern California’s biggest ecological treasures, the Bolsa Chica wetlands, according to Christian Corbo, a lieutenant with the department. Pushed by currents, the slick is likely to continue moving south, away from Bolsa Chica and Long Beach.
Oil already has penetrated the smaller Talbert Marsh, which is south of Bolsa Chica and managed by the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, said Executive Director John Villa. So far, no birds or fish have died in the marsh, he said, although two birds have been coated in oil, and clams, oysters and crabs living among the oil-covered rocks could be at risk.
“We’ll have to see what’s going to happen,” Villa said.
On Sunday, the California Department of Fish closed fisheries within six miles of shore from Sunset Beach to Dana Point. California’s environmental health experts warn that fishing in the vicinity of the spill and eating potentially tainted fish and shellfish could threaten public health.
Newport Harbor, home to several thousand recreational boats, also was closed down.
What’s being done to clean it up?
The Coast Guard has launched a fleet of boats using booms to isolate the oil and then collect it using skimmers. All told, as of Sunday, more than 5,300 feet of boom had been deployed and 3,150 gallons of oil had been recovered from the water.
Officials at a press briefing Monday said little about efforts along the shorelines, where cleaning up oil can take a number of different strategies — including industrial-sized vacuum trucks, absorbent materials to sponge up the oil, soap-like cleaners to disperse the grease and shoveling it up and carting it away.
Sensitive environments like coastal wetlands can be especially difficult to clean, said David Valentine, a professor of earth science and biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“It’s often as much or more damage to send a whole bunch of people in there walking all over this habitat,” Valentine said. “So you’re in a tough predicament, because the cleanup can be almost as bad as the spill.”
So who’s at fault and why?
State and federal officials have launched investigations of the cause and timing of the spill. Under numerous state and federal laws, companies can be fined and held responsible for cleanup costs and damages to natural resources as well as the local economy.
“This is a criminal case,” said Eric Laughlin, a public information officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There is a federal and a state investigation separate from this response.”
“Whatever needs to be done, we will take care of it,” Willsher said at a press briefing today.
Authorities will want to review Amplify Energy’s operations records, the status of their equipment and whether workers were negligent in any way.
Additionally, officials will want to determine how quickly the company reported the spill. For safety reasons, oil and gas production pipelines usually have shutoff valves that allow operators to quickly staunch the flow. When a breach is detected, time is of the essence to cut off the flow and begin efforts to contain the spill and prevent it from reaching shore.
The company has sent a remotely operated vehicle to inspect 8,000 feet of the pipeline, and identified an area of “significant interest” that divers were set to inspect this afternoon.
“There is no active leak that we are aware of and especially in that specific area that we’ve identified,” Willsher said.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer urged investigators to oversee Amplify’s divers as they inspect the line.
“They shouldn’t be able to go anywhere near that pipeline,” Spitzer said. “They are biased, they’re self interested, and they’re going to do everything they can to try to reduce their damages.”
Who’s in charge?
The accident is under unified command: The United States Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response are directing the emergency.
The platform’s owner, Amplify Energy, is also involved. The city of Huntington Beach is also participating, and state agencies such as the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission and the State Parks Department, which has property in the path of the oil, are also monitoring the situation.
Once the investigation identifies a responsible party, state and federal officials will undertake a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, conducted through the fish and wildlife agency.
The complex and painstaking analysis quantifies death and injuries to wildlife — assigning a dollar value to a shore bird, for example — and estimates the cost of restoring the oiled landscape and waters.
Recent legislation has beefed up the state’s ability to penalize companies for oil spills: A 2020 law doubled the minimum and maximum fines for an array of oil spill violations and added a provision that a person who knowingly discharged or spilled oil into state waters, or failed to clean up the spill, could be fined up to $1,000 per gallon in spills of more than 1,000 gallons.
Another, a 2018 law, required the state to consult with agencies such as the California Coastal Commission when evaluating damage to public resources such as beaches.
The Coastal Commission already has the authority to fine entities for activities that deny coastal access. A bill that would expand the commission’s ability to levy fines for environmental damage passed the legislature in September and is on the governor’s desk.
The state needs to send a message to companies that they will be required to pay to clean up after themselves, said Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach and the bill’s author. “The state bears so much of the damage and cost associated with these spills,” he said. “This will give the state the tool it needs to hold companies accountable.”
How expensive is it?
The price tag for environmental cleanup and fines can be high, although certainly affordable for mega companies.
After extensive litigation over the 1990 spill in Huntington Beach, several companies, including British Petroleum, Brandenburger Marine and tanker owner Attransco, paid about $27 million in cleanup costs and damages.
In 2019, a judge issued fines and penalties of $3.35 million against Plains All American Pipeline for the Refugio spill near Santa Barbara, far less than the $1 billion that prosecutors had sought. In addition, the company pegged its cleanup costs at $335 million.
On the other end of that spectrum is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout, which killed 11 workers on a drilling rig that spewed 3 million barrels of crude oil across 40,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.
British Petroleum finally paid $60 billion in criminal and civil penalties, environmental damages and cleanup costs. British Petroleum was also fined for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the federal Clean Water Act.
What has the state done to avoid and prepare for oil spills?
The 1990 oil spill off Huntington Beach led to the passage of the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act, which established the state Oil Spill Prevention and Response agency under the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Three years later, the oil spill agency created the state’s first comprehensive plan to respond to oil spills, and established a government-wide network of some 22 agencies that share information and responsibility responding to spills.
The legislature provided money for a $50 million trust fund, whose interest payments support the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The agency also supports wildlife care centers and rescue centers. The first one opened in 1997 at Humboldt State in Arcata. There are now 12 such centers around the state.
How does this compare to other spills in California?
The largest oil spill in California history was a catalyst for the launch of the American environmental movement and the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The 1969 blowout at a Union Oil drilling platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, shed 4.2 millions of crude into the water and onto nearby beaches before it was brought under control 11 days later.
Two years later, after the Santa Barbara incident, two oil tankers collided in the mouth of San Francisco Bay, releasing 840,000 gallons of oil into the water. Tides and winds carried the spill north and south along a coastline that served as a critical wintering habitat for aquatic birds. A 1972 report by Western Field Ornithologists estimated 20,000 birds died as a result of exposure to the oil.
In the 1990 Huntington Beach spill, shoreline from Seal Beach south to Newport Beach was coated with oil from the 400,000 gallon spill from the American Trader.
In 2007, the Hong Kong-owned oil tanker Cosco Busan sideswiped a supporting pier of the Bay Bridge in heavy fog. The resulting 100-foot gash released 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, killing an estimated 6,800 birds.
The Refugio State Beach spill, which occurred 24 miles west of Santa Barbara in 2015, was distinctive in that the pipeline rupture occurred onshore, about a mile inland from the beach. The spill sent an estimated 120,000 gallons into a culvert that drained into the Pacific, damaging a rich marine ecosystem of kelp forests.
In an earnings report later that year, Plains All American Pipeline, the Houston-based owner of the pipeline, estimated 142,800 gallons had leaked from the 29 year-old pipe. Emergency response and cleanup costs were estimated at $257 million.