After the massive oil spill off Huntington Beach, environmental advocates are mounting concerns about the federal safety agency in charge of checking the pipeline and past safety violations by the oil company.
“The oil industry [has] been famous for not taking preventative maintenance as much, until a crisis hits and then [they] fix it,” said Garry Brown, founding director of Orange County Coastkeeper.
OC Oil Spill
- Authorities now estimate a spill size range between 25,000 gallons to a maximum of 131,000 gallons
- 5,544 gallons of oily water retrieved
- Approximately 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines
- 14,060 feet of boom laid to try to curb oil spread
- More than 900 people on the ground in cleanup effort
- General questions: 714-374-1702
- Do not approach affected wildlife, call in a report: 877-823-6926
- Assist with animals: 714-374-5587
- Help with cleanups: 714-374-1702
- File a claim: 866-985-8366
Local environmental advocates like Brown say the spill raises tough questions about oversight of the oil and gas industry, which is one of the biggest donors in federal elections.
“But when you have a failure of a pipeline of this magnitude, you wonder, was there preventative work? Was there preventative inspections? Or was this something that got pushed back to the wayside?”
Questions still linger about how the spill occurred, why there was an apparent delay in notifying local officials and why federal regulators post no details online about dozens of prior violations by the pipeline operator.
The pipeline operator – Beta Operating Company, a subsidiary of Amplify Energy – has been had at least 125 violations of safety regulations, according to federal data.
But the federal oversight agency’s website doesn’t list specifics about the violations, and what if any fines were imposed.
A spokesman for the pipeline inspection agency – the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) – didn’t answer a phone and email message asking where that information can be found.
The oil pipeline’s parent company, Amplify Energy, didn’t return a phone message for comment.
The spill – which is dumping oil slick along much of the local coastline and damaging wildlife – also is prompting a civil and criminal investigation, with District Attorney Todd Spitzer calling it a “catastrophic environmental disaster.”
It remains to be seen if the pipeline company – which is smaller than major oil companies – has the funds to pay for all the cleanup.
Amplify President and CEO Martyn Willsher assured reporters at a Monday news conference that the company does have enough money for clean up efforts.
At that same news conference, state and federal officials said they hadn’t yet determined what caused the pipeline to spill an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil, much of which has been hitting Orange County’s shoreline and sensitive environmental habitats.
Willsher said it’s possible a ship anchor hit it.
If that turns out to be the case, it would raise questions about the pipeline’s placement and its condition, conservationists say.
“It’s not a great idea to have a major shipping anchorage on top of subsea pipelines – in places not even buried in the sea floor. This 17-mile pipeline out to [the] Elly platform was kind of obviously an accident waiting to happen,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Ocean Foundation who has been tracking oil pipelines and spills for decades.
He said he’s been watching publicly available ship tracking data in the area.
“There have been several major vessels parked on top of that pipeline for about a week,” Charter said. “Aging pipelines are kind of like a timebomb … when they get old, they’re fragile.”
“[The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] knows that and the industry knows that,” he added, referring to the regulators’ acronym.
Bureau spokesman Mike O’Berry didn’t answer a message asking for the agency’s response to concerns about potential gaps in oversight of oil pipelines and offshore drilling.
While official timelines point to an hours-long delay between the spill and when local officials were notified, Charter said the pipeline company should have gotten an immediate alert that the pressure had dropped.
“In this case it’s almost incomprehensible that the operator of the pipeline didn’t notice a pressure drop,” given the automated pressure sensors that are supposed to be along the pipeline, he said.
“When the pressure drops in a pipeline, usually an audible alarm sounds – not just a flashing computer screen. And so the question is, who was minding the store when the pressure drop occurred?”
Undersea oil pipelines are supposed to be inspected by the federal oversight bureau.
A spokesman for that agency said Monday the pipeline was inspected as required at least once every two years, but did not have the dates they occurred.
“The required [bureau] inspections were performed,” said O’Berry, a spokesman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The agency would not release the inspection reports Monday in response to a Voice of OC reporter’s requests, with O’Berry saying they would instead have to be requested through the Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take weeks for records to be released.
Earlier this year, the federal Government Accountability Office found numerous issues with the oversight agency tasked with regulating the safety of offshore oil pipelines in the Gulf Coast.
In a scathing March report, the watchdog office said the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement can’t accurately detect oil leaks because they don’t have proper underwater monitoring procedures, including not requiring undersea inspections.
“[The bureau] does not have a robust oversight process to ensure the integrity of approximately 8,600 miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico,” the report states.
And pressure sensor safety devices – meant to warn of leaks – are “not always reliable,” the report adds.
However, federal oversight bureau officials told the watchdog office that pipelines off the Pacific Coast do have pressure sensors and undersea inspections.
The massive oil spill comes just as Congress is debating banning all new future oil and gas drilling off the Southern California coast.
Democrats have put such a ban in the infrastructure package they’re trying to pass, following a drilling ban bill introduced this year by Rep. Mike Levin, who represents coastal communities in South OC and North San Diego County.
Levin says there’s near-unanimous opposition to more oil drilling off the coast when he asks constituents, regardless of their political leanings.
He said he’s asked many times at community events if anyone wants to see more drilling off the coast.
“And no hands go up. No Republican hands, no Democratic hands, no independent hands,” Levin told Voice of OC on Monday.
“It’s close to complete consensus, if not complete consensus that we don’t want any more offshore drilling off our coast.”
Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Huntington Beach) sidestepped the question twice when asked about the idea of an offshore drilling ban at a news conference Monday.
“Our priority is we’re going to make all these beaches clean,” Steel said.
Locally, Orange County’s DA is taking aim at the pipeline operator, heavily criticizing the fact that it’s involved in investigating itself.
“The company should not be responsible for leading its own investigation,” Spitzer said at Monday’s news conference.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s office is deeply concerned about the wildlife impact that has occured on our shores, and the economic impact to our community,” he continued
“And somebody’s going to pay for that – criminally or civilly.”