An oil pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach, California has spewed more than 120,000 gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean, one of the largest spills in the state’s history.
The spill has trigged a potential “ecological disaster”, according to Mayor Kim Carr.
The spill was reported on 2 October roughly five miles from the southern California coast. Officials have reported that the leak appears to have stopped as divers and emergency response crews investigate a 17-mile pipeline for the source of the leak.
Huntington Beach officials reported an oil slick measuring nearly 6 miles along the coast.
By Monday, more than 3,150 gallons of oil have been removed, and roughly 5,360 feet of oil booms – floating barriers to prevent oil intrusion – were deployed along the coast, according to the US Coast Guard.
Here is what we know so far.
What caused the leak?
We don’t know yet.
Federal, state and local crews are investigating how the pipeline – operated by Beta Offshore, a subsidiary of Houston, Texas-based oil and gas company Amplify Energy – spewed the equivalent of roughly 3,000 barrels into the Pacific Ocean.
“There is no active leak that we are aware of, especially in that specific area,” Amplify president Martyn Willsher said on 4 October.
He said the source of the leak could be identified within the next day.
The pipeline connects to one of three processing platforms roughly 17.5 miles off the coast.
A 2012 report from Beta Offshore and obtained by NBC News found that a “worst case” scenario breach of the pipeline would dump 3,000 barrels of oil, or 126,000 gallons – roughly the exact impact of the current spill.
A leak of that size would cause “significant and substantial harm to the environment” because “of its proximity to navigable waters and adjoining shoreline areas designated as environmentally sensitive,” according to the report reviewed by NBC News.
Amplify, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Coast Guard and county officials are handling the probe.
How did it impact the coast and wildlife?
Huntington BeachMayor Kim Carr described the impact as an “environmental catastrophe” and “potential ecological disaster” during a press conference on Sunday.
“In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades,” she said. “We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats.”
The spill has seeped into Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh, and conservancy groups have stressed that it could take weeks or months to determine the full and longer-term impacts of the spill.
At least three birds have been recovered with oil on them, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis. Another bird had to be euthanized.
US Rep Michelle Steel, whose district includes Huntington Beach, wrote to President Joe Biden urging federal support for a disaster declaration in the area, which would commit federal assistance to the recovery efforts.
“Officials are already responding to protect sea life,” she wrote. “Dead fish and birds are already being reported on the beaches and shorelines. I have serious concerns about the environmental impacts of the spill.”
Orange County supervisor Katrina Foley said crews are starting to find “dead birds and fish washing on the shore”.
Are beaches still open?
Orange County health officials issued a public health advisory urging residents to seek medical attention if they’ve come into contact with the spill, and to “refrain from participating in recreational activities on the coastline such as swimming, surfing, biking, walking, exercising, gathering.”
Huntington Beach shores are closed between the Santa Ana River Jetty and Seapoint Street.
All Laguna Beach beaches are closed to the public until further notice. Though the spill has not yet reached the shore, emergency responders are “anticipating this may happen and are ready to respond”.
Newport Beach officials are also advising people to avoid the water and impacted beaches, though they are open to the public with a water advisory in place.
“Unfortunately, the size and potential impact of this oil spill make it necessary for people to stay out of the water and avoid contact with the oil,” Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery said in a statement. “The city’s top priority is to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors during the cleanup effort.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has also closed fisheries in impacted areas.
Has this happened before?
The latest spill comes more than three decades after the American Trader oil tanker spilled more than 416,000 gallons of crude, killing roughly 3,400 birds after the ship ran its anchor off Huntington Beach in 1990.
In 1969, a spill off the coast of Santa Barbara spewed roughly 80,000 barrels of crude. Another spill in 2015 gushed another 2,400 barrels into the Pacific Ocean.
Offshore oil production in California has declined over the last few decades, and Governor Gavin Newsom has set a goal of ending drilling along the coast by 2045.
Beta Offshore has been cited at least 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, including 72 times for violations severe enough that the company had to pause drilling, according to a review of Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement records from the Associated Press.
What is the White House doing?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is closely monitoring the spill. The federal government is “working collaboratively with state and local partners to address efforts to finally contain this spill and assess impact and address potential causes,” she told reporters on 4 October.
Following the spill, California Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein urged the administration and Congress to end offshore oil drilling – a proposal included in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion Build Back Better package, comprising a bulk of the Biden administration’s climate agenda.
The measure would prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ban offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and eastern Gulf of Mexico.
During his campaign, the president pledged to to end new drilling on federal lands, and his Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, opposed drilling efforts and supported the Green New Deal while she was in Congress.
But the administration has approved roughly 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands within the first six months of 2021, according to an analysis from the Associated Press, and the administration will open 80 miles of the Gulf for oil and gas leasing next month, frustrating environmental advocates and nonprofit groups who have sought to block the administration’s plans in court.
“The Biden administration’s decision to open up the Gulf to more drilling is not only hypocritical to their stated goals to act on climate, it is illegal,” Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy said in a statement. “This is a continuation of the prior administration’s reckless and unlawful behavior, all while the real repercussions of offshore drilling are apparent by the unfolding oil disasters in both the Pacific and the Gulf.”
Meanwhile, the agency tasked with supervising a sprawling network of active offshore oil and gas pipelines – nearly 9,000 miles of them in the Gulf of Mexico alone – does not have a “robust oversight” process or require any below-surface inspections, according to a recent federal government watchdog report.
The same goes for more than 18,000 miles of abandoned pipelines and wells, part of a vast ocean of infrastructure without any clear decommissioning standards or process for removal.
A 2021 report from the US Government Accountability Office found that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement under the US Interior Department has allowed the oil and gas industry to leave 97 per cent of unused pipelines in place since the 1960s.
“Such a high rate of approval indicates that this is not an exception, however, but rather that decommissioning-in-place has been the norm for decades,” according to the report.