As the Orange County oil spill sparks debate on Capitol Hill over ending offshore drilling, Congress is coming to town for an investigative hearing on the local impacts.
The hearing – scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the Irvine Ranch Water District – will give “Orange County families an opportunity to speak directly with lawmakers and get information about the recent oil leak,” states a news release from Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine).
It’s being convened by the Porter, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Clemente) – two of whom chair key subcommittees on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Porter leads the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, and Lowenthal chairs Energy and Mineral Resources.
“We can only do our jobs in Washington if we are grounded in the real experiences of what happens to families across the country and to businesses across this country,” Porter told Voice of OC in an interview Friday.
She said the hearing is aimed at examining the oil spill’s damage to wildlife, the economy and residents.
“The goal here is to collect those stories, to provide information to the public here…from expert witnesses, and in essence to share the expert insight we get in Congressional hearings with the public here in Orange County,” Porter said.
Loewnthal echoed Porter’s sentiments at a hearing the day before.
“As part of the spill investigation, we need to hear from residents in the surrounding communities on the ground,” he said at a Thursday hearing. “That’s precisely why Congresswoman Porter and I are having a joint field hearing this coming Monday in Southern California.”
“It’s critical that we don’t simply move on and wait for the next accident to occur,” he continued.
“Offshore oil and gas infrastructure – both in the gulf and in the Pacific – is a ticking time bomb, and the California spill is part of a much larger disaster in the making.”
Congressional Democrats are calling for speeding up an end to offshore drilling by making oil companies put aside enough money to decommission their rigs and pipelines.
Their Republican colleagues have accused them of attacking American energy production and jobs, and hurting sensitive fish ecosystems by pushing to remove the abandoned oil rigs they call home.
Monday’s hearing will be the third day of Congressional proceedings on the oil spill, following debate Wednesday and a hearing Thursday on whether to ban offshore oil drilling and impose more regulations and public disclosure of pipeline safety failures.
Porter said there’s now momentum among her Democratic colleagues to do two things: ban oil and gas drilling in the Pacific, under the West Coast Ocean Protection Act she co-sponsored, and another bill that would more broadly ban offshore drilling.
“[We need to stop] investing in the energy of yesterday. And we need to be investing in the energy infrastructure of the future,” Porter said in the Friday interview.
At the same time, she said, “it’s not as simply as turning off a tap…there’s a lot of drilling equipment,” adding it’s important to make sure “it’s removed and closed down in a responsible way,” she continued
“The law on this is quite clear. The practice of it is a mess. And we have lots of oil wells [where] there’s no oil being produced, but they delay formally declaring them abandoned because that lets them put off the decommissioning costs. And later, when years have gone by and people say, ‘What about that?’ – that company is gone, shut down,” Porter said.
“And so I think it’s really really important that we have not only…clear law, but that we’re closing the gap between what the law says and the real world.”
Original 1979 approval records obtained by Voice of OC have prompted questions about why the pipeline wasn’t buried under the sea floor and why an automatic shut-off device didn’t stop the leak.
Those records show California Coastal Commission staff foresaw the risk of an anchor striking the pipeline before it was built, and called for it to have a leak detector that automatically shuts down the pipeline in the event of a spill.
Questions also remain about why it apparently took the pipeline operator hours to report the leak to authorities around 9 a.m. on Oct. 2, after getting a low pressure alarm at 2:30 a.m. indicating a possible leak.
Levin says the spill is marshalling local members of Congress to move faster to add more safety measures to offshore drilling and speed up an end to drilling off the SoCal coast.
“I think that the oil spill has just brought new urgency for this matter for all members in Southern California,” he told Voice of OC in an interview this week.
“I will do all I can to move forward with decommissioning,” Levin added at Thursday’s hearing.
Republican members of Congress said the Democrats’ decommissioning push will harm the environment and further spike energy prices for everyday Americans.
Under Democrats’ proposals, “this country is going to continue to pay far more for energy, and it will deplete our standard of living,” said Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisconsin) at Thursday’s hearing.
“We draw a hard line on vilifying an entire industry that employs hard-working Americans earning high-quality wages and lets you and I put affordable gasoline in our vehicles,” said Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minnesota).
“I recognize that many would use the recent events in California to argue for outright banning oil and gas development, or nickel-and-diming folks in the industry out of a job,” he added.
“Policies proposed by this very body will only make this crisis worse.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.