Monday kicked off a series of public autopsies by state lawmakers into the communication delays and regulatory gaps which allowed an offshore oil spill to smear tar across Orange County’s iconic coastline last month.
Yet notably absent from the first hearing by the California State Assembly’s Select Committee on the Orange County Oil Spill — which also discussed phasing out offshore drilling — was the very company which owns the pipeline that leaked:
Amplify Energy Corp.
“I do want to express my extreme disappointment in Amplify Energy’s refusal to participate in today’s hearing,” said State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), who represents a major section of Orange County’s coastline, from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach.
It’s the second time the company has declined to make itself available for public hearings with state officials, the first time regarding an Oct. 28 legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento.
“Their absence today is all the more disturbing,” said Petrie-Norris at the start of the Monday hearing, adding that the company’s refusal to participate sends “very clear” messages to the public:
“A, you don’t care. B, you have something to hide.”
Dan Steward, Vice President of Beta Operations at Amplify Energy, in a Nov. 12 letter to the committee explained his company’s refusal: “Given the various ongoing investigations into this incident, we are not in a position to responsibly answer your questions at this time.”
“In the immediate term, Amplify remains focused on working within the Unified Command as the response continues to wind down, beaches reopen, and covered claims are reviewed and processed,” Steward’s letter adds.
It’s estimated that 25,000 gallons of crude oil spilled last month, a smaller amount than what was initially feared. However, 82 birds and 6 mammals were recovered dead over the course of cleanup efforts as of Nov. 11.
“We will continue to support the communities affected by this event and cooperate with regulatory investigations as they proceed,” the company wrote in its letter.
The state oil spill committee has multiple aims, namely to identify where improvements can be made in disaster response protocols and offshore pipeline regulation.
But lawmakers have also signaled the committee will explore phasing out offshore oil platforms.
The object is for the committee to gather information from these hearings for possible legislative action, with another hearing eyed for some time in January, according to Petrie-Norris’ office.
On Monday, the panel had two other Orange County state representatives in attendance:
State Assemblywoman Laurie Davies (R-Laguna Niguel), who represents the most southern part of OC coast; and Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R-Huntington Beach), who represents Seal Beach and parts of Huntington Beach.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr, who gave public testimony, again raised questions over the communication gaps and conflicting information her city received from the U.S. Coast Guard in the early days of the spill.
The Coast Guard has faced scrutiny over its delay in acting on early reports about oil sightings in the water at the beginning of October. Meanwhile, Amplify Energy has faced questions about why it waited hours after a rupture alarm to shut down the pipeline.
“Hours make a huge difference,” Carr said, adding that “if we had a couple more hours” then maybe the city could have prevented more damage.
Huntington Beach’s coastline is home to numerous coastal wetlands, which are key migration points and habitats for endangered and at-risk species. Oil seeped into the Talbert Marsh.
So far, Carr said the city has spent $500,000 in public money on cleanup and response. Things would have been worse, she added, if her city didn’t happen to have a readily-available supply of cleanup and response equipment which it obtained through a grant.
During Monday’s hearing, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham reflected on some lessons learned in state disaster response efforts last month.
“One of the things that slowed us down this spill is, we spent a lot of cycles trying to find the next place for the incident command post,” Bonham said. “We need to get beyond that and do our due diligence before a spill, so we know the appropriate public venues which are not operated by the responsible party” — something which “undercuts trust.”
Improvements to disaster response technology are also in order, Bonham said — namely, nighttime spill detection.
At night, he said, “it’s near impossible to figure out a dark sheen in the dark of night on a dark ocean surface — but I gotta think, with California being” a leader in technology, “there might be improvements in that space.”
Assemblywoman Davies raised concerns Monday over the committee’s eventual topic of phasing out offshore drilling — namely over its economic impacts and whether alternative methods, such as transporting oil by freight, would come with their own risks.
Bonham refused to “stake a policy flag” in response to her concerns, which came in the form of a question, but said, “when we have offshore oil production we will always have the risk of a spill.”
In response to Davies’ question, Petrie-Norris said a spill’s economic impacts — shutting down the coastal economy — would prove far worse for their constituents.
Carr recounted those impacts to her city last month, in her testimony, describing how hotels and restaurants suffered immense losses as a result of the spill coinciding with local events like the Pacific Airshow.
“There was no way you could recover if you purchased a ton of food or provisions for a massive crowd that just doesn’t happen,” she said, adding the disaster dealt her city, and the county coastline overall, “a bit of reputation damage” from a tourism standpoint.
Not to mention the “daily health impacts” of oil production, and the pollution it causes, to people, said 39th District State Assemblywoman Luz Rivas (D-San Fernando Valley), who represents parts of Los Angeles County.
“Each time we have made improvements in oil spill prevention and response … oil always finds new ways to get into the environment to the point that a spill seems inevitable,” Rivas said.
Garry Brown, the founder of the Orange County Coastkeeper environmental advocacy group, told committee members that a solution to the issue hinges on collaboration with the oil producers off California’s coast
There are four offshore oil platforms in the state-controlled waters of California, and 23 oil and gas production facilities located in federally-controlled waters along the state coastline, according to the State Lands Commission.
The “large companies” which built the platforms “are gone,” Brown told the panel, “with far more marginal companies” operating the ones which remain active.
He added these companies are “operating at a cost,” and “there are stakeholders willing to come to the table.” At one point, Brown said he didn’t think an offshore drilling ban was necessary: “I think we should try collaboration first.”
By comparison, committee members like state Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) saw it this way:
“Unfortunately, oil spills and therefore these hearings will continue until we remove all petroleum … from our coast.”
Six weeks ago, state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) publicly promised to introduce legislation doing just that.
Debates over offshore drilling “went dormant” in California over the years, Brown said. “And if there’s been anything positive about this oil spill, it’s to possibly reignite the conversation.”
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