California’s massive offshore oil spill: What we know

By Heather Richards | 10/05/2021 07:15 AM EDT

Officials are looking into whether a ship anchor ruptured a pipeline off the coast of California, causing the major bleed of crude oil this weekend that's ignited calls to end the Golden State’s already declining offshore oil industry.

Floating barriers known as booms try to stop further incursion of crude oil into Talbert Marsh after an offshore spill near Huntington Beach, Calif., happened over the weekend.

Floating barriers known as booms try to stop further incursion of crude oil into Talbert Marsh after an offshore spill near Huntington Beach, Calif., happened over the weekend. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. EDT

Officials are looking into whether a ship anchor ruptured a pipeline off the coast of California, causing the major bleed of crude oil this weekend that’s ignited calls to end the Golden State’s already declining offshore oil industry.

But as a challenging cleanup effort continues, the full extent of the spill remains unclear. The oil spill was discovered in federal waters about 5 miles off the coast of central California, landing onshore at Huntington Beach, an Orange County community about 40 miles south of Los Angeles.


Martyn Willsher, CEO of pipeline operator Amplify Energy Corp., said damage from a ship anchor is “one of the distinct possibilities” being weighed as a possible cause of the damage.

“We are moving very close to the source of the cause of this incident,” said Willsher during a news conference yesterday, while promising more answers soon.

Divers were sent yesterday afternoon to inspect an area of the pipe suspected as the source of the now-contained bleed, following a review of about 1.5 miles of pipeline by a remote operated vehicle.

The largest offshore spill for the Golden State in decades, the bleed has mired a handful of birds in oil and led to the euthanasia of one pelican.

The spill has also shut down fisheries and beaches as cleanup efforts continue, and officials have worked to seal off sensitive coastal wetlands like Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh.

The disaster has galvanized some lawmakers in California, and many environmental groups, all pushing for the retirement of offshore drilling.

“We’ve seen time and time again how damaging offshore oil spills are to our coastal ecosystems, as well as to our economy,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and supporter of an end to federal oil leasing in the Pacific Ocean. “We have the power to prevent future spills.”

The White House is weighing the future of federal oil and gas leasing, but the Biden administration has so far not followed through on the president’s campaign promise to end the program.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said yesterday that President Biden is “very engaged” in monitoring the spill and the White House is working with state and local partners to find the leak, contain the oil and survey damages.

Erin Mellon, spokesperson for California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), said the governor’s office was “working closely” with regulatory agencies.

“As California continues to lead the nation in phasing out fossil fuels and combating the climate crisis, this incident serves as a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities,” she said in an email.

While clean up is expected to take weeks, if not months, officials expect answers about the source of the spill as soon as today.

Here’s what we know, so far.


How bad is it?

Experts are still weighing the impact of the spill, but so far say they are pleased that wildlife impacts have been better than expected. Still, they remain worried about fragile coastal wetlands.

“It’s much better than we had feared,” Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said in a press conference yesterday.

David Valentine, an expert in oil spills at the University of California Santa Barbara, said the real concern now is in the potential damage to California wetlands, which are already under pressure from urbanization. A severe oil intrusion would be very difficult to remediate without damaging the sensitive ecosystem.

“What I worry about most are marshes, areas where [if] oil gets in, it’s not going to come out,” he said.

Valentine said long-term impacts at sea are also hard to gauge at this stage. The surface spill — affecting birds, fish and marine life that pass through it — will only be partly contained. Much of the oil that reaches the sandy beaches will be carried back out to sea with the tides. But the heavy crude oil can then sink to the ocean floor making it harder for experts to assess the spill’s ongoing damage.


What happened?

A pipeline connecting the Elly offshore oil platform to shore ruptured, spilling as much as 3,100 barrels of crude oil into the waters off the coast of Los Angeles.

Workers for Beta Offshore Operating Co. LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based Amplify Energy, notified the Coast Guard on Saturday of the likely spill after noting a sheen on the water. Residents along the coast reported odors and surface sheen as early as Friday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A unified command to respond to the spill was set up Sunday. It includes Amplify Energy, the Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the cities of Long Beach, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

More than 300 people from government agencies and private response organizations have been deployed to respond to the spill in recent days, using skimmers and laying out 8,700 feet of boom — devices that corral oil on the surface, according to the unified command.

Their efforts had collected about 98 barrels of oil as of yesterday.

“The Unified Command is focused on the health and safety of the public, responders, and the protection of our coastal community,” said Capt. Rebecca Ore, the incident commander and captain of the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, in a statement. “We have many dedicated professionals working around the clock to clean up this spill and ensure the safety of the public and environment.”

The Elly platform is one of three operated by Amplify in federal waters roughly 9 miles from the coast, in an oil field that’s been drilled for decades. A processing facility that doesn’t produce oil itself, Elly is connected to the Ellen and Eureka oil platforms. Combined, the facilities have produced more than 94 million barrels of crude since the early 1980s, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore oil development.

The central California coast is home to several prolific oil fields, as well as natural seeps that release crude oil and gases into the ocean.

A 2009 study by the University of California Santa Barbara, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found the equivalent of 80 Exxon Valdez oil spills in sediments downstream from natural seeps off the Santa Barbara coast, a reference to the 260,000 barrel spill from a tanker in offshore Alaska in 1989.

The oil spill over the weekend is likely far smaller than the infamous oil spills of the past, according to initial estimates.

In addition to the Exxon Valdez disaster, large spills include the 70,000-barrel release during the Santa Barbara disaster in 1969 and the 3-million-barrel Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest offshore oil disaster in U.S. history.

The Amplify spill may be roughly equal in size to the 2015 Refugio oil spill, to the north, when an onshore pipeline ruptured and oil traveled down to the Pacific Ocean shoreline.

Valentine, the UCSB professor and one of the authors of the 2009 assessment with Woods Hole, said that large oil disasters should be distinguished from the slow release of crude oil from natural seeps in the Pacific, which most occurs north of the Amplify spill, off the Santa Barbara coast. While the ecosystem is adapted around those natural releases, the sudden gush of crude from oil spill disasters are not easily mitigated by natural forces like oil-eating microbes.

“Oil is a natural product, and so [natural systems] eventually can break it down. But I think the key there is ‘eventually,’” he said. “We know that when you have large pulses, that it sort of slows down that whole process, because nature isn’t used to massive spills. It’s used to a dribble.”


Who’s responsible?

The operator of the Elly platform is a California subsidiary of Houston’s Amplify Energy.

The company’s stock value fell by more than half yesterday in response to the news of the spill. But Willsher, the CEO, defended the company’s cleanup commitments in a news conference.

In the nine years that the company has operated the pipelines, it has not flagged the kind of degradation that would underline a spill risk, he said.

He said the company inspects its pipelines every year for signs like reduced pipe thickness that could herald a rupture.

The CEO also said Amplify would do “whatever needs to be done” to clean up the crude bleed and cover its costs.

“We are fully committed, like I said yesterday, to be here through all of the recovery efforts and making sure that we can get everything back to normal as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We have significant insurance, in addition to our funds on hand,” he told reporters in Huntington Beach yesterday.

But for some watchdogs, the Amplify spill underscores a long-standing push for stronger regulations on pipelines in the country, with companies held to a higher standard before disasters hit.

“We have been trying to improve the effectiveness of spill response plans for some time now. Why did it take so long for the cleanup effort to begin? An operator should be able to put an effective spill response plan into action very quickly,” said Bill Caram, the executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust.

The situation is “maddening, ” he said, pointing to several incidents in recent years where Amplify was fined or warned for issues with valves, welding, risk management processes and so-called high consequence areas.”

Weaknesses in federal oversight of pipeline infrastructure was also flagged earlier this year in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The GAO slammed the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for what it deemed limited oversight and inspection of offshore pipelines and gathering lines. It also flagged the elevating risk from infrastructure at sea as it ages and recommended updates to regulations.

“As pipelines age, they are more susceptible to damage from corrosion, mudslides and sea floor erosion,” GAO wrote.

In response to that report, Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would order BSEE to update its pipeline regulations.


Political shift

The oil spill has reverberated among environmental groups and lawmakers critical of industry.

Even before the spill, many California lawmakers were urging a pivot away from production, both due to local impacts like pollution and oil combustion’s contribution to a warming climate. They’ve amplified that message in the days since the oil spill was discovered.

Rep. Jared Huffman said the spill underscored the value of his legislation barring all offshore oil and gas development.

“Where you drill, you spill,” the California Democrat tweeted yesterday, echoing environmentalists’ refrain that risks associated with oil and gas development can never be fully contained.

Padilla called the spill a “preventable” tragedy and urged his colleagues to support the “West Coast Ocean Protection Act,” a bill ending offshore oil and gas leasing off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.

Environmentalists were also calling for accountability.

“I’ve seen the aging oil platforms off Huntington Beach up close, and I know it’s past time to decommission these time bombs,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “Even after fines and criminal charges, the oil industry is still spilling and leaking into California’s coastal waters because these companies just aren’t capable of operating safely.”

Consumer and environmental groups have been pressing Newsom to end oil drilling in state waters, saying it’s needed because of climate change.

Newsom’s administration has issued 138 oil permits for operations in state waters since he assumed office, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance said.

“This current spill makes it clear like never before that there is no such thing as safe proximity to oil drilling,” said Liza Tucker, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog. “Governor Newsom must stop issuing both offshore and onshore permits immediately and set a barrier of 2,500 feet between vulnerable communities and oil operations if his own oil and gas supervisor won’t.”

California banned the issuing of new oil drilling leases in state waters up to 2 miles from shore in 1969 after the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill, they said.

But new drilling and other work on wells in existing leases in state waters is allowed.

Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, said it was too early at this stage to speculate on any potential policy impacts and directed specific questions to Amplify — the company is not a WSPA member.

“The focus right now is on the operations to address the spill, protect the environment and save marine life,” he said in an email.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president and CEO of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that “safety and operational excellence” were core to the organization’s mission.

“Any spill is a tragedy, and we are grateful to the Coast Guard and the unified incident command for their rapid response to the spill and their work to minimize the impacts on the environment and marine life,” she said in a statement.

Psaki, the Biden administration spokesperson, was asked yesterday whether the White House was considering a national emergency declaration and said it would be up to Newsom to request it.

“We’re in close touch with the governor and his team,” she said.

She was also asked about the spill and potentially ending the auctions of offshore drilling licenses.

She noted ongoing litigation and said Biden has “identified addressing the climate crisis as a core priority for him and this administration and certainly taking every step possible to do that remains a priority.”

She said: “I wouldn’t say this changes that, that has been the case before this and will be the case even as we work to ensure that recovery is complete.”

Reporters Lesley Clark, Mike Soraghan and Anne C. Mulkern contributed.