Santa Barbara rupture prompts calls for more restrictions

By Debra Kahn | 05/21/2015 08:45 AM EDT

Tuesday’s oil spill on the Southern California coast has sparked calls for more restrictions on drilling and an inquiry into the cause of the accident.

A 24-inch pipeline, owned by Plains All American Pipeline Co., ruptured Tuesday afternoon and released 105,000 barrels of crude oil, with about 21,000 gallons of that making its way to the ocean. The pipeline, which runs from a storage facility in Las Flores to Gaviota, about 180 miles up the coast, was last inspected two weeks ago, the company said. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) yesterday declared a state of emergency for the area in order to speed cleanup.

For drilling opponents, the spill evoked a historic 4-million-gallon spill off Santa Barbara in 1969 that resulted in a moratorium on offshore drilling in state waters.

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The spill has galvanized groups that are pushing for restrictions on drilling. Groups including Food & Water Watch, 350 Santa Barbara and the Center for Biological Diversity are planning a press conference today on Refugio State Beach, the site of the spill, located 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. They will campaign to "ban extreme oil extraction like fracking and phase out oil development in California."

"This incident is yet another example, of which we’re having too many, of how our dependence upon dirty fossil fuels is bad for our environment and bad for our health," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California. There are bills on the state and federal levels that would ban drilling activity off California’s coast.

"The good news is we have the technology to do it," Jacobson said. "We just need to get the political will."

The chairman of the state’s Assembly Natural Resources Committee announced he would hold an oversight hearing to explore how the pipeline could have ruptured despite leak inspections.

"It is unacceptable that local people on the bluffs were the first ones to report the spill before the oil company did," said Assemblymember Das Williams (D)
. "We will also seek answers through a district hearing in the coming days to understand how a breach in the leak detection technology this serious could have occurred without raising alarms to the pipeline operator. We need answers to these serious questions and to find out why the response communication apparently broke down."

A bill in the state Legislature, S.B. 788, by state Sen. Mike McGuire (D)
, would remove the State Lands Commission’s authority to enter into offshore oil leases on state-owned lands.

"The oil slicks on the front page of this morning’s newspapers are reminiscent of the images from 1969," McGuire said in a statement. "Tuesday’s devastating oil spill is yet another example of the significant dangers related to coastal oil development."

Currently, the state permits slant drilling from federal leases into state lands, language that has been interpreted to apply only to a part of Santa Barbara County known as Tranquillon Ridge. Petroleum companies in response have sought leases at the site, while environmentalists have pushed to close what they call a "loophole" in the offshore drilling prohibition.

Last year, a similar bill failed, 28-34 (Greenwire, Aug. 27, 2014).

In 2010, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to pull his support for a drilling proposal off Santa Barbara (Greenwire, May 4, 2010).

Appetite for taking on oil companies has waned in the state Legislature, however, Jacobson noted. Bills to ban hydraulic fracturing failed in 2013 and 2014, and no bills to ban the practice have been submitted this year, although one from Sen. Anthony Rendon (D) would restrict fracking near earthquake zones (Greenwire, May 30, 2014; EnergyWire, April 28).

"I just think the special interest groups came out and crushed the bills so badly, legislators are thinking, ‘I don’t think we can pass a bill,’" Jacobson said.

On the federal level, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last month, H.R. 1951, to put a moratorium on fracking in federal West Coast waters until the Interior Department conducts an environmental impact study. She also has reintroduced the "California Ocean and Coastal Protection Act," H.R. 1952, which would permanently ban new oil and gas development in federal waters off the California coast.

"I am deeply saddened by the images coming from the scene at Refugio," she said. "This incident is yet another stark reminder of the serious risks to our environment and economy that come from drilling for oil."

The Western States Petroleum Association, of which Plains is a member, put out a statement saying its members would learn from the incident.

"As an industry, we are always concerned when accidents like this happen," the group said. "WSPA members strive to prevent any amount of spillage and have numerous programs and procedures designed to prevent such occurrences. Once the incident is contained and thoroughly cleaned up, they will review the facts surrounding this incident and apply what they learn to prevent future accidents."

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