The recent oil spill off the coast of Orange County remained center stage in Congress Thursday, with a second day of proceedings after representatives debated whether to ban offshore oil drilling and impose more regulations and public disclosure of pipeline safety failures.

On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over oil and gas extraction laws, considered two bills put forward by Democrats: one to mandate more pipeline inspections and leak detectors, and another to require public reporting when safety equipment fails on pipelines.

More Congressional proceedings related to the spill and pipeline safety are slated for today, with an Orange County House member – Alan Lowenthal, (D-Long Beach) – planning to do his own questioning as he chairs a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific time. (Click here to watch live.)

And this coming Monday, one of Orange County’s Congressional Democrats, Katie Porter, is planning a hearing on the oil spill by the investigative subcommittee she chairs.

The congressional debates offer Orange County residents a front row look at how their members of Congress are reacting to the spill.

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Congressional Democrats said the spill is giving them new urgency to end offshore drilling and enact new rules to prevent spills and protect the coast in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are accusing their Democrat colleagues of exploiting the spill to attack the fossil fuel industry.

“The pipeline rupture off Huntington Beach is yet another wake up call for Congress,” said the committee’s chairman, Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) at Wednesday’s legislative markup. 

The spill, he said, shows “how offshore equipment that is damaged and fails can lead to environmental disaster.”

“I agree with many of my colleagues that we need to protect our coasts from new leasing, and that we need to wind down drilling as quickly as possible,” Grijalva added.

Republicans on the committee said the Democrats’ proposed regulations and bans would burden consumers with higher costs, kill jobs and shift oil production to countries with far less stringent environmental protections.

“To bring the oil spill in California into this discussion, I think it shows…the old saying about ‘Don’t let a tragedy go to waste,’ ” said the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas.

“The issue with the oil spill in California was caused by overcrowding at ports. The Coast Guard has said it had to do with a ship anchoring onto the pipeline, which should have never happened,” he continued.

“And somehow we think the oil companies are responsible for somebody else’s misdeeds.”

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Coast Guard investigators have said they believe 25,000 to 131,000 gallons of oil spilled from the pipeline after a ship anchor dragged a 4,000-foot section of it by 105 feet sometime in the last year.

Investigators said they believe the anchor strike – or strikes – happened months ago, with the concrete casing of the pipe breaking and setting the stage for the metal pipe to erode and later leak.

It took nearly a week after the spill before investigators publicly answered questions about what they’ve been finding.

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.

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Republican elected officials in Orange County are taking different approaches to offshore drilling.

State Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R-Fountain Valley) has been noting her opposition to new offshore drilling, pointing to a 2017 letter she sent to then-President Donald Trump when his administration was considering opening up new leases off California.

Adding more oil and gas drilling “could render significant harm to the world’s 6th largest economy, disrupt industry sectors and affect our environment,” Nguyen wrote in her letter.

Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Huntington Beach) has declined to answer one way or another if she supports drilling bans, and is instead focusing her legislative proposals on banning cargo ships from anchoring off the coast.

Citing the oil spill, Steel announced Wednesday she’s introducing a bill to outlaw cargo ships “idling or anchoring 24 nautical miles off the Orange County coast,” amid the current port backlog in which dozens of ships are waiting off the coast to offload their cargo.

President Biden announced Wednesday the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would start operating 24/7 to help clear the backlog, though port officials aren’t saying if all docks will operate around the clock and industry executives said the plan is insufficient.

At Wednesday’s debate in Congress, local Democrats said oil spills are inevitable where drilling takes place – and that it’s time to wind down their operations.

“The oil spill off the coast of California is as tragic as it was preventable. And this latest environmental catastrophe highlights the simple fact that where you drill, you will spill,” said Lowenthal.

“I also support winding down and phasing out existing offshore operations as quickly as possible, as we transition to a clean energy economy. But, as long as offshore production continues, we must be doing all that we can to hold companies accountable,” he added.

“This oil spill is a disaster for our environment and our economy,” said Mike Levin (D-San Clemente).

“The only foolproof way to protect our coasts, oceans and the marine economy in California that relies on them, is to end drilling off our Southern California coast once and for all.”

Republicans on the committee emphasized pipelines are the safest way to move oil, and said the root problem of the spill isn’t the pipeline, it’s the backlog of ships waiting to dock.

“We should focus on investigating the actual cause of the California spill, the policies that created such a dangerous backlog of ships in the first place,” said Westerman.

“When you [reduce] American energy [production], all it does is increase your dependence on foreign energy – with less environmental standards,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana).

Offshore oil infrastructure also has environmental benefits for fish – along with sportfishers who catch them – said Republican representatives.

“Drilling rigs, pipelines can be very helpful to the fishing population,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

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On party line votes, the committee on Wednesday passed two bills from Democrats to further regulate offshore drilling.

The Offshore Pipeline Safety Act would require leak detectors on pipelines as well as bi-annual inspections, and the Offshore Accountability Act to require more public disclosure when safety equipment malfunctions.

It’s now up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whether to bring the bills for a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Offshore drilling rigs have largely been handed off to much smaller companies than their original owners – including in the case of the pipeline that leaked off Orange County – prompting questions about whether they’re able to pick up the tab during spills and when the pipelines are decommissioned.

Among the measures in the Offshore Pipeline Safety Act is an annual fee on pipelines to pay for decommissioning them if their owners go bankrupt.

Republicans said that shows their colleagues across the aisle are trying to kill off the oil industry.

“The $10,000-per-mile fees imposed by this bill make clear that this legislation is part of the Democrats on this committee’s broader goal to impose numerous fees and mandates until oil and gas companies can no longer operate profitably,” said Rep. ​​Matt Rosendale (R-Montana).

“The fees in this section will cause serious harm to America’s energy industry,” he added.

The bill’s author responded that the measure would ensure pipelines are cleaned up by the industry that’s profiting off of them.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the cleanup of decommissioned pipes left behind on the ocean floor by polluting industries,” said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Thousand Oaks).

“The industries who want to exploit our natural resources for profit should clean up their own garbage – and not leave it behind for future generations of American workers to pick up the tab.”

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

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