Federal records show over 100 safety violations – including problems with shut-off valves and leak detection – by Beta Operating Co., which runs the pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of crude oil off of Orange County’s coast earlier this month.
The documents, obtained by Voice of OC through a Freedom of Information Act request, come as federal authorities probe why it apparently took hours to shut down the pipeline after sensors indicated a drop in pressure.
In the years leading up to the spill, federal authorities found problems with the oil rigs’ pressure sensors and shut-down valves.
In November 2017, a safety valve failed “to perform its designed function upon receiving a signal, detectable leak during test,” regulators wrote in the database released by federal regulators.
Four years earlier, the operator was “unable to verify the required monthly testing” for three of its shut down valves, according to regulators.
“This is not a really impressive safety record for any company operating anything,” said Richard Charter, an oil pipeline expert and conservationist with the Ocean Foundation.
“And it goes to show this whole thing has been an accident waiting to happen for some time.”
Two safety violations from 2011 spoke to problems with well pressure sensors, with regulators noting that two of the sensors did not activate as required.
That same year and again in 2015, safety valves “failed to close upon signal.”
In 2019, a “pressure safety low” sensor “failed to provide a shut down signal when tested,” regulators wrote.
And in November 2020 – less than a year before the spill – a federal inspection found a shut-down valve “failed to function upon receiving a [pneumatic] signal.”
They are among 124 safety violations – known as “INCs” – noted by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) since August 2010 in a database that provides little detail about each case.
Asked about the safety violations around shut-down valves and pressure sensors, Beta’s parent company, Amplify Energy, said safety is a key priority for the company.
“Amplify Energy is committed to safely operating and producing oil and natural gas in a way that ensures the protection of the environment,” Amplify Energy spokeswoman Amy Conway said in a written statement.
“This is a core value at our company and is reflected in our operational and regulatory compliance record.”
The company declined to comment for this article about the specific safety issues found by federal regulators.
The pipeline and oil rigs were purchased by Amplify’s predecessor, Memorial Production Partners, in late 2012.
The company later declared bankruptcy, which it emerged from in 2017 with a new name of Amplify Energy and a new board of directors.
It took operators more than three hours to shut down the pipeline after being warned by alarms that it was likely leaking – and over six hours for operators to report the leak to authorities on Oct. 2, federal investigators found in their preliminary investigation.
Coast Guard investigators and pipeline operators have not said publicly whether an equipment malfunction had a role in the apparent delays.
With Amplify emerging from bankruptcy four years ago, questions have been mounting over whether the pipeline operator will be able to pay all the bills for the spill cleanup and business impacts.
When asked, Houston-based Amplify Energy – which emerged from bankruptcy four years ago – says it’s committed to its responsibilities for cleanup and regulatory requirements, including following federal rules for insurance coverage.
But the company declined last week to say whether it has enough coverage for all of the spill costs.
And in past disclosures to investors, Amplify has said it can’t promise its insurance would cover all of its liabilities.
Amplify succeeded in having a court essentially eliminate its federally-mandated obligation to set aside money for the eventual plugging and abandoning of its wells, the news agency Capital & Main reported this week.
“Capital & Main reviewed records that show the company cashed out funds required by the government so that taxpayers don’t foot the bill for cleaning up these operations, reducing it from $90 million to just $300,000,” the article states.
Amplify now doesn’t have enough in bonds to pay for the eventual decommissioning of its platforms, Capitol & Main found.
Asked about the article, Amplify said it’s following all government rules.
“Amplify Energy is in compliance with all regulatory decommissioning requirements for its Beta operations,” the company said in a statement.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.