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In California oil spill, pipeline critics find a way to push Biden

The accident, which has leaked as much as 144,000 gallons of oil, has shut down beaches, closed the region’s busiest leisure port and threatened wetlands and wildlife

More than 120,000 gallons of oil leaked from a rig and into the waters and beaches of Huntington Beach, Calif., on Oct 3. (Video: Storyful)
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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — A large oil spill continued to spread across the coastal waters of Southern California on Monday, shutting down miles of beaches, closing the region’s busiest leisure port, threatening wetlands and wildlife, and raising fresh questions about the safety of U.S. pipelines.

Federal and state officials opened a criminal investigation and said they were eyeing a ship anchor as a possible cause of the pipeline leak, which spread ribbons of sheen across some 13 square miles and was sending clumps of oil onto the shore. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency in Orange County to support the emergency response to the spill.

Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore called it “a complex, dynamic and evolving situation” as oil continues to flow south.

“I know these beaches are incredibly important not just to the residents and citizens of Southern California, but to much of the country,” she said. “I know it’s a very tough situation to see the impacts.”

The accident, which local officials as of Monday night estimated had poured as much as 144,000 gallons of oil into the waters and onto the shorelines of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, also underscores the murky nature of who bears responsibility for pipeline accidents when the costs are far reaching.

The issue of pipeline safety comes as climate activists are seeking to block new projects across the United States. Build Back Fossil Free, a coalition of climate and other activists, plans to protest outside the White House next week to call on President Biden to declare a climate emergency and block all new fossil fuel projects.

“The oil spill demonstrates exactly why it’s so important for the Biden administration to act now on fossil fuels,” said Jamie Henn, one of the protest organizers, “rather than relying on long-term targets and a slow transition.”

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On Monday, crews in hazmat suits raked up oil-soiled sand and dumped it into plastic bags, while others erected sand barriers to prevent petroleum from flowing into nearby marshes. Portions of the Talbert wetlands across from Huntington Beach were coated with sludge.

There were some seagulls and a great blue heron, but — so far at least — they seemed to be keeping their distance. Only four birds were discovered injured and one, a pelican, was euthanized, but far greater numbers are expected to wash ashore in coming days as oil coats their wings.

The U.S. Coast Guard closed Newport Harbor, the largest recreational harbor in Southern California. There are 4,500 vessels berthed there, and it generates some $300 million annually in direct revenue to the city of Newport Beach, according to Harbormaster Paul Blank.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the federal government has had 14 boats conducting oil recovery operations since Sunday afternoon. Four aircraft were dispatched for overflight assessments, and shoreside response was conducted by 105 government agency personnel. Approximately 3,150 gallons of oil have been recovered from the water, and 5,360 feet of boom has been deployed.

Fisheries up to six miles from shore were shut down, the White House said, and three Coast Guard vessels enforced a safety zone of 1,000 yards.

Eric Laughlin, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department’s office of spill prevention and the U.S. Coast Guard had opened a criminal investigation into the accident.

Martyn Willsher, chief executive of Amplify Energy, the owner of the platform, said at a news conference that it was a “distinct possibility” that the pipeline was damaged by a ship anchor, adding that the company was “committed to fulfilling our duties here.”

This is the third time Southern California has suffered a major oil spill. The first near Santa Barbara in 1969 galvanized the country and led to Earth Day and a raft of new environmental laws. While that led to the curtailment of new drilling offshore, companies are still operating aging fields and infrastructure.

While California leads the nation in policies curbing fossil fuels, it still ranks as the nation’s seventh-biggest crude oil producer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The Western States Petroleum Association said the oil and gas industry generated $21.6 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2017, along with $11 billion in sales tax, $7 billion in property taxes and $1 billion in income taxes.

Environmental Defense Center senior attorney Maggie Hall, whose group is in court over the 2015 Refugio oil spill, said the industry still poses serious risks.

“The main takeaway is that there’s no safe way to transport oil,” she said. “It’s not a matter of if these spills are going to happen, but when.”

The pipeline leaking now was built four decades ago, when Shell Oil built an offshore platform called Elly in 255 feet of water off the coast of California and hooked up a 16-inch pipeline. While it started producing oil on Jan. 13, 1981, Shell no longer owns or operates it.

Today the platform is owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy, whose predecessor company recently emerged from bankruptcy and which lacks the deep pockets major oil companies have.

“The larger oil companies are sloughing off these old rigs and platforms to smaller companies,” said Teresa Sabol Spezio, a lecturer at Pitzer College and an environmental engineer. “They’re trying to show they’re sustainable.”

Among Amplify’s largest shareholders are hedge funds led by Avenue Capital Group with 6.7 percent, Two Sigma Investments with 3.2 percent and Union Square Park Capital with 2.6 percent, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings through June 30. Until last year, two hedge funds — Fir Tree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management — owned approximately 40 percent of Amplify’s outstanding stock.

Avenue Capital is run by billionaire Marc Lasry, co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, who recently invested in Ozy Media, which shut down after various controversies led to a plunge in advertising.

On Monday, shares of Amplify Energy tumbled 44 percent on news of the spill, wiping out about $110 million of market value.

It was only the latest volatile swing in the stock, which has more than doubled this year but in 52 weeks ending May 2020 had dropped 88 percent. The company got $5.5 million from the first stimulus package. In June 2020, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement gave Amplify Energy “special case” royalty relief, cutting its rates in half.

On Monday, Willsher said the pipeline under scrutiny had been inspected every year. He said the last time the company did a scan inside it using a device known as a PIG was in 2019; the last scan done with a device known as an ROV was carried out last summer.

But Robert Bea, professor emeritus in engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, said that wasn’t often enough, especially given that the pipeline was aging and could be corroding from both the inside and out. “You put steel in salt water and it doesn’t take very long for marine growth to turn the pipeline into an interesting piece of sea weed or marine life.”

Some residents in the area say they smelled unusual odors last Friday, but Willsher said the pipeline problem wasn’t discovered until Saturday and the company acted within a half-hour.

However, the Los Angeles Times, citing documents it obtained, reported late Monday that government officials knew about the spill more than 10 hours before it was reported by Amplify.

Amplify said in a release Monday that it was first to have observed and notified the U.S. Coast Guard of an oil sheen approximately four miles off the coast, just outside state waters and within federal waters. The company has dispatched a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) “to investigate and attempt to confirm source of the release,” it said. The company said it shut down all production and pipeline operations “as a precautionary measure.”

Local authorities were taking steps to protect the public. Instead of beachgoers, the parking lot at Huntington Beach was full of trucks and trailers from Orange County officials, as well as Patriot Environmental Services and Pacific Petroleum. The beach entrance was blocked and a big sign flashed: “BEACH CLOSED- OIL SPILL.”

“It’s terrible, it’s a tragedy, but these things do happen,” said Barbara Livingston, 72, who was walking on a path along the beach. “I’ve lived here 28 years and we’ve never had anything to this extent. … It would be nice to have a paradise where there’s no oil, but people want to drive.”

While environmentalists are trying to halt the construction of pipelines across the country, they’ve had only mixed success.

Protesters tried unsuccessfully for months to block the completion of the Enbridge Line 3 project, which transported oil from Canada across the wetlands and forests of northern Minnesota. But opponents lost a series of court challenges, the Biden administration did not step in, and oil started flowing through the completed project on Friday.

Biden has sought to balance the interests of several trade unions, whose members continue to work on pipelines, against the need to cut carbon emissions linked to burning fossil fuels.

Both Democratic senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, focused their ire Monday on offshore drilling, saying it needed to stop off their state’s coast.

“It’s bad for the wildlife, obviously, and bad for the ecosystem,” said John Long, 45, an insurance agent who said he rides his bike daily along the beach and past the wetlands.

Long questioned why drilling is happening off the California coast, “especially since we’re supposed to be going electric and eco-friendly.”

Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.

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