With Congress now probing the Orange County oil spill – slated to figure prominently in public bill debates today and tomorrow – a key Congressman says there’s deeply troubling questions presented by permit records Voice of OC obtained last week.

The original 1979 permit approvals show the pipeline was supposed to have automatic shut-off equipment to immediately stop oil spills and alert a control room.

Yet the pipeline operator waited hours to shut down the pipeline on Oct. 2 after getting a low-pressure alarm that indicated a potential leak, according to federal investigators.

Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Clemente), who serves on the House committee probing the spill and potential law changes, says the permit records obtained by Voice of OC raise serious questions about what went wrong.

“If the operator didn’t have the proper automatic shut off equipment in place, then that’s extremely troubling, And the parties responsible must be held accountable,” Levin said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“It obviously wasn’t functioning. And if not, why not? How often is it inspected to ensure that it is functioning? And did that occur here? And if not, that’s an obvious problem,” he added.

“And what’s the useful life of that automatic shut-off mechanism itself, if it’s something that over time can fail – hence the need for inspection.”

Pipeline owner Amplify Energy hasn’t returned multiple phone messages for comment, including a follow-up request Tuesday.

The permit documents obtained by Voice of OC also show the pipeline operator agreed to bury the pipeline under the sea floor in ship anchoring areas – which may not have included the section of pipeline that federal investigators say leaked after an anchor likely dragged and damaged it.

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Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Los Alamitos) chairs the congressional subcommittee holding a hearing Thursday on offshore drilling safety, which is expected to raise questions about the Orange County spill and what can be done to prevent further leaks.

In an interview Tuesday, he said the permit records unearthed by Voice of OC raise a host of questions.

“Shouldn’t there be an automatic shut off valve?” he said. “Shouldn’t this be buried?”

“If we’re going to have oil [drilling] out there, we damn well have these basic questions answered,” he added.

“These pipelines are over 40 years old, 50 years old. It’s a little scary how old they are.”

At a news conference last week, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said his company immediately alerted authorities once the company saw oil on the water surface just after 8 a.m. on Oct. 2.

But he declined to say why they apparently did not alert authorities hours earlier when, according to federal investigators, the control room got a low pressure alarm at 2:30 a.m. and later shut down the pipeline around 6 a.m.

The oil spill off the shores of Orange County is now making its way into the halls of Congress, figuring into bill debates and investigation hearings by the House Natural Resources Committee.

Three Orange County representatives sit on that committee – Levin, Lowenthal, and Katie Porter (D-Irvine).

Capitol Hill’s public discussion of the spill kicks off today, with a markup hearing by the full committee on two bills – the Offshore Pipeline Safety Act to require more safety features and inspections, and the Offshore Accountability Act to require more disclosure when safety equipment malfunctions.

It starts at 8 a.m. Pacific time, with the Orange County oil spill featuring prominently in the debate, according to a news release from the committee.

[Click here to watch Wednesday morning’s Congressional markup live, which is scheduled to start at 8 a.m.]

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The congressional proceedings continue tomorrow, with a hearing chaired by Lowenthal on whether more federal oversight is needed when offshore oil pipelines are decommissioned.

“The ongoing San Pedro Bay pipeline oil spill near Huntington Beach, Calif., is a major environmental disaster and a harbinger of the dangers posed by aging oil and gas infrastructure,” states a news release about the Thursday hearing by the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

“Weak and outdated offshore pipeline regulations and financial assurance requirements expose U.S. taxpayers to potential decommissioning costs associated with cleaning up pollution and removing old oil and gas infrastructure from the ocean.”

In the interview, Lowenthal said the hearing was originally meant to be focused drilling in the Gulf of Mexico – where federal safety regulations are looser than off the West Coast.

But the Orange County spill is prompting additional questions for the hearing about safety inspections, and how the eventual decommissioning of offshore rigs will be made feasible – when big oil companies have sold off many of the rigs to much smaller firms.

In the case of the recent pipeline leak, the platform and pipeline were originally developed by oil giant Shell, before eventually being sold to Amplify Energy, which is 1,000 times smaller than Shell in annual revenue.

“The big guys…sold off these assets, or sometimes they gave them away, to these smaller companies…who are running them and probably making some money on doing it,” Lowenthal told Voice of OC.

“But the question is, we will be closing them down at some point, or they will. And do they have enough money now – like Amplify, which has just been coming out of bankruptcy. Is there enough money to do all the cleanup, all the decertification?”

[Click here to watch Thursday’s hearing live, which is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.]

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On Monday, the oil pipeline hearings continue, with an Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing in Irvine, hosted by Porter, its chair.

“I’m planning hearings—including one right here in Orange County within the next week—so families can get answers about the recent major oil leak,” Porter said in a statement to Voice of OC.

The Monday hearing is “primarily to learn more, to hear from the community, those that are most impacted. and for us to do a listening session”

[Click here to read the 1979 permit records from the California Coastal Commission.]

Members of Congress are debating whether to increase the frequency of pipeline inspections, after Coast Guard officials revealed the outside of the pipeline hadn’t been surveyed since Oct. 2020 – a year before the spill.

Coast Guard investigators say the pipeline could have been damaged months ago by an anchor dragging a 4,000-foot section of pipe by 105 feet (LINK), setting the stage for the pipeline to later crack and release tens of thousands of gallons of crude.

“It seems to me once a year may not be enough,” Levin said when asked by Voice of OC about the last inspection being a year ago.

“Clearly it wasn’t in this case,” he added, saying Congress should examine tightening up those safety rules after consulting with experts.

Levin said members of Congress are gathering a wide range of information as they prepare for hearings – including records unearthed by reporters.

“We are reading your reporting as well as we consider the path forward with regard to the investigation that will continue,” Levin said.

“Our hope is that we can prevent the next spill.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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