Thursday, July 7, 2022

The California oil spill is a disaster once and in the future

Once again, the coast of California is flooded with oil.

Ever since I started working on the story of the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, every time crude oil pollutes the waters and beaches of the United States, I expect the same sad, misleading official message.

For the record:

18:31 October 5, 2021A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the years in which the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills occurred. They happened in 2010 and 1989, respectively.

Over the past few days, we have learned that a pipeline from an offshore oil platform off Huntington Beach has dumped up to 144,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. In response, industry and government officials touted the technology’s enormous potential to reduce damage and save the lives of fish, seals and waders, as Union Oil and the Nixon administration did in 1969.

They know better.

Oil has chemical properties that prevent it from being captured when it gets into water. Specialized oil spill responders will do their best, but the tools they currently have have a slightly better chance of success than the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, or the Santa spill. -Barbare is more than 50 years ago.

Oil containment booms have been in use since the 1960s; the only difference now is the type of absorbent they contain. Computational models of offshore oil perform poorly and hinder progress. The 2021 boom failed to protect the rich Talbert Marsh ecosystem in Huntington Beach from an oil invasion last weekend in calm seas, just as containment failed to protect Santa Barbara in 1969. false assurances anyway.

In the coming days and weeks, oil is washed out onto our beaches, drifting with the waves, currents and wind. As with other oil spills, it will float in films that delaminate or stick together to form resin balls; As I write this, ribbons of oil have been seen as far south as Dana Point and in San Diego County, and the oil may have been moving north into Long Beach.

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The glitter may remain off the coastline, out of sight for most of us, but it will be just as dangerous to life at sea. As the oil changes shape, Amplify Energy, which owns the leaked pipeline, will explain how it stopped the flow – but how quickly and how completely? He will investigate and, based on past experience, do his best to avoid responsibility for the terrible damage caused by the spill.

Rescuers and federal, state and local agencies will work to remove oil from the ocean, clean up beaches, rescue birds and marine mammals, and recover at least some of the cost of the spill. With the advent of wildlife rescue technologies in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, dedicated workers will save countless birds. Local residents and authorities will be filing lawsuits against Amplify Energy or possibly a shipping company that was reportedly involved in the leak.

Over the past few decades, major variations on this familiar narrative reflect changes in the oil industry, and not necessarily for the better.

In the past, corporate giants such as Union Oil, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, the original developer of the Huntington Beach oil field, would have been nominally and at least somewhat financially liable for damage from the spill. But Big Oil has sold many of its offshore properties to smaller firms with less capital and influence, and less public image. The platforms are still working, oil production continues, but more and more in the hands of less wealthy and recognizable companies such as Amplify Energy.

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These smaller companies may not be willing to spend their limited capital on basic safety requirements such as pipe replacement, inspections, and regular testing to determine the condition of their equipment. In 2015, Plains All American Pipeline neglected a corrosive pipe connected to offshore oil sources, failed to provide adequate emergency closure technology, and spilled 142,800 gallons of crude oil onto Refugio State Beach. Offshore platforms and pipelines, which are the source of the oil that now stifles our coastlines, were built in the early 1980s. Other oil infrastructure in federal waters off the California coast dates back to the mid-1960s. We know that in the future we can expect more problems and failures with this aging equipment.

There is at least one encouraging change in the history of the oil spill – the end of the absolute power of fossil fuels. In 1969, the residents of Santa Barbara, shocked by the disaster they faced, called for a boycott of the oil companies. It didn’t go far; oil and gas were America’s default energy source. But in 2021, industry and consumers will have real alternatives if we decide to implement them.

For those of us who study oil spills, long-term questions remain: When will we act to stop drilling instead of perfecting our ritual responses to the results? How many more California beaches will be closed, how many birds will be killed, and how much more marine life and coastline will we sacrifice to oil company profits? What needs to be done before we respond to Santa Barbara’s visionary appeal over 50 years ago?

Teresa Sabol Spezio teaches environmental policy and justice at Pitzer College and is a practicing environmental engineer. She is the author of Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill.

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