Unanswered questions about California oil spill suggest oversight isn’t working

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Unanswered questions about California oil spill suggest oversight isn’t working

California’s fleet of offshore oil and gas rigs, and the miles of pipelines that connect those rigs to on-shore refining operations, feature some of the most advanced technology the industry has to offer.

Out at sea, computerized systems on the manned platforms can detect even tiny leaks in the pipelines, monitoring the pressure and flow of oil from command centers that operate 24 hours a day. In some cases, valves are programmed to automatically snap into place to limit escaping oil.

And, beyond that, government regulators and private firms employ a veritable armada of inspection. Airplanes, drones, divers — all scout the ocean for signs of spilling oil.

But all of those safeguards weren’t enough to prevent oil from leaking into the water off Huntington Beach from an underwater pipeline this month, environmental and legal advocates say.

Some observers argue that current offshore oil drilling rules, and the technology that’s standard in the industry, are lax enough that spills like the one that became public on Oct. 2, involving a pipeline run by money-losing Amplify Energy Inc., are inevitable.

“The big picture is that there are failures going on here,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that tracks offshore oil operations.

“They seem to be asleep at the wheel.”

Knowledge gaps

Almost two weeks after the spill, it’s still not clear what caused the pipeline to rupture or how long — and how much — it leaked.

Current estimates peg the size of the leak at something between about 25,000 gallons and 131,000 gallons.

And while first reports of the spill were made public at 8:55 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, when Amplify called a federal spill hotline to say that its workers were seeing oil in the water, it’s likely the problem started much earlier.

 

  • The pipeline that leaked oil into the ocean off Orange County last weekend may have been damaged in more than one incident, and as early as months ago, U.S. Coast Guard investigators said Friday. (Photo from video taken by Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm, U.S. Coast Guard)

  • Platform Elly, right, shown here on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. A pipeline running from the offshore platform leaked, with an estimated 126,000 gallons released into the ocean. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

  • A clump of oil lies on the sand near the pier in San Clemente, CA on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Oil began washing ashore from a spill that is believed to have come from a damaged pipeline connected to an oil rig off the Orange County coast. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Clean-up crews look for oil washing up near the pier in Huntington Beach, CA on Monday, October 11, 2021 as visitors returned to the beach. The beach had been open following an oil spill off the Orange County coast but officials allowed entry into the water starting Monday. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Clean-up crews look for oil washing up near the pier in Huntington Beach, CA on Monday, October 11, 2021 as visitors returned to the beach. The beach had been open following an oil spill off the Orange County coast but officials allowed entry into the water starting Monday. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • While increased regulations and new policies have improved Southern California’s coastal waters, this month’s oil spill hints at the ongoing — and growing — vulnerabilities facing the ocean. Above, workers clean oil from the sand south of the pier in Newport Beach, CA, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Workers clean contaminants from the Talbert Marsh on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, the fifth day after an oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach threatens the ecosystem.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

During the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 1 residents in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Irvine reported an odor wafting in the air that smelled of gas or tar. And during that evening, oil spill experts on a ship off of Huntington Beach reported seeing a sheen of oil on the water, using the same hotline that Amplify used on Saturday morning.

Neither the company nor emergency officials seemed to understand the scope of the spill until almost a day after those initial reports. The city Huntington Beach cancelled an air show — which drew an estimated 1.5 million visitors to the beach — early Sunday morning.

“How in the world did it take so long for them to detect a leak?” asked State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, who this week was named chair of a legislative committee that will look at the spill and how to prevent others.

Petrie-Norris, whose district includes much of the Orange County coast, said she has questions about Amplify’s “level of urgency” in its response.

“Were their detection systems not up to par? Do our regulations for detection systems need to be improved?”

Dive teams who later inspected a section of the pipeline found it bent “like a bowstring,” said Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willshire.

The theory remains that a massive anchor from a cargo ship hooked the pipeline and dragged it. But after an initial investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard still does not know when that impact occurred.

What is known is that the pipeline was built in 1981. And, over the years, the pipeline has been subject to, and passed, regular inspections. During that time, Amplify also has upgraded the pipeline — including with leak detection systems — that meet industry standards.

But records and federal documents also show a history of safety and oversight failures during that time.

In 2019, Amplify reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — a federal agency that oversees the safety and environmental protections of drilling operations — that workers with its subsidiary, Beta Offshore, had inspected the 17-mile pipeline. The inspection was looking for corrosion, metal loss, dents and deformations. Despite the pipeline’s age, the company found nothing that needed significant repair.

Amplify’s CEO Willshire told reporters this month that the company also conducted an inspection in October 2020, for a separate federal agency. Again, the company reported it did not need to improve the pipeline.

Such self-inspection is the norm for oil companies and federal regulators. At least one critic suggests the relationship is too close.

“Even efficient oversight couldn’t have entirely prevented this, in large part because the regulators… view themselves as having a customer service relationship with the oil industry,” said Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“They don’t put sufficient resources into (overseeing) offshore oil and gas rigs.”

Oversight from a distance

Some in the federal government agree.

Since 2006, PHMSA has launched four federal enforcement cases against the operators of the pipeline. The most serious came in 2008, when the agency found that the operator failed to inspect three main line valves for about a year. Companies are required to inspect such valves at least twice a year.

But in none of those four enforcement cases did federal regulators propose any corporate penalty, or take any corrective action.

While PHMSA is focused on pipelines and spills a separate agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, is tasked with regulating America’s offshore oil and gas facilities and pipelines.

And yet, according a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, that agency “does not have a robust oversight process for ensuring the integrity of” thousands of miles of offshore pipelines.

The GAO found the lack of oversight in a study commissioned after two serious leaks in the Gulf of Mexico in 2016 and 2017.

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