Oil spill raises questions about coastal management, safety of rigs

A pelican takes flight from the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, California, on Oct. 4. The area has been impacted by an offshore oil spill. Photo: The Associated Press

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

A pelican takes flight from the Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, California, on Oct. 4. The area has been impacted by an offshore oil spill. Photo: The Associated Press

Oil spill raises questions about coastal management, safety of rigs

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
The pipeline linked to the spill that fouled popular southern California beaches and killed wildlife has stopped leaking. But concerns about the reasons for the mishap and its ecological impacts could linger for years.

Already battling the most destructive wildfires in its history, California now faces another crisis: a major oil spill that has fouled beaches along its southern coastline and killed wildlife. 

The spill was reported Saturday about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County. More than 3,000 barrels—or about 126,000 gallons—of crude leaked from an underwater pipeline, creating a miles-wide sheen, and prompting California Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency to protect public health and the environment. 

The pipeline has stopped leaking, and cleanup efforts are now underway. But concerns—ranging from the cause of the spill to its substantial ecological impacts to its legal ramifications—will linger well into the future. 

Amplify Energy, the Houston-based independent oil company that owns the pipeline responsible for the spill, “will definitely face lawsuits for this release of crude oil into the environment,” said Daniel Suman, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. 

“Causation does not appear to present significant hurdles here. Challenges for natural resource damages, cleanup and response expenses, and long-term environmental monitoring will be based on the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act as well as under California law,” said Suman, who holds an adjunct appointment at the School of Law. “The company can also expect challenges for economic damages from affected tourism, boating, and fishing businesses.” 

While the Huntington Beach spill pales in comparison to bigger ones such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, which spilled approximately 134 million gallons of oil into the ocean, it can still adversely impact Southern California’s wildlife and coastal regions. 

“Long term effects of a spill of this nature are difficult to assess. However, we know from other spills, also along the Pacific Coast, that recovery can take decades,” said Martin Grosell, professor and chair of marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School, who has studied the impacts of Deepwater Horizon crude oil on mahi-mahi fish. “A rapid response to reduce oiling of coastal habitats is essential. It is fortunate that the leak apparently has been stopped and that local conditions are not preventing first responders from reacting.” 

Work crews have deployed skimmers and floating barriers called booms to prevent the oil from further damaging area wildlife and wetlands. The use of powerful dispersants, which help break up oil into very small droplets, would not be feasible in such a spill, according to Claire Paris-Limouzy, a professor of ocean sciences at the Rosenstiel School. She conducted research on the effectiveness of the massive amounts of chemical dispersants that were injected into the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, which was about 1,500 meters beneath the surface. 

“The rationale was to disperse the oil to stop it from rising, but we all know that it did not work because the oil was already atomized in small droplets by the rapid expansion of the gas,” Paris-Limouzy explained. 

She noted that the Huntington Beach oil leak occurred in about 80 feet of water. “This is very shallow. So, dispersants cannot be applied directly on the leaking pipeline. Subsea dispersant injection generally will be less effective in reducing oiling at the surface and at the shore in shallower spills,” she said. 

Paris-Limouzy stated that small oil droplets rise quickly from shallow depths, allowing for less biodegradation and dilution. If anything, dispersants could be applied at the surface in Huntington Beach to diffuse the oil before it reaches the coastline, she added. “But the spill is too close to the coastline, and the application of dispersants at the surface cannot be used due to their toxic impact on sensitive species and humans,” she pointed out. 

The Huntington Beach spill, according to Suman, highlights the need for a permanent moratorium—either Congressional or presidential—on new federal leasing for oil and gas activities adjacent to California and on the West Coast. 

“Active leases are located off Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties,” he said. “Many people argue for the suspension or cancellation of existing leases in the Outer Continental Shelf off Southern California and the phase out of oil and gas leasing there, particularly as the country is beginning to shift to green or renewable energy.” 

Suman said the basis for cancellation could be the threats posed by aging installations. He pointed out, for example, that Amplify Energy’s platforms, pipelines, and infrastructure adjacent to Los Angeles and Orange counties are more than 40 years old. “There is clearly a need for heightened inspections by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on aging installations that have passed their expected lifetimes, and this demands that BSEE develop new and aggressive safety regulations,” he said. 

But he cautioned that suspension or cancellation of leases “would certainly be challenged by oil companies and might require significant compensation or restitution from the federal government.” 

Paris-Limouzy, Grosell, and Suman responded to questions about other aspects of the Southern California spill. 

This spill occurred in the Pacific Ocean, not in a basin like the Gulf of Mexico. What conditions will factor into where the oil goes?

Paris-Limouzy: The ocean climatology of the Southern California region suggests that during the fall the oil could potentially flow downstream northward along the coastline as far as Santa Barbara within a month. Weather conditions can exacerbate the accumulation of oil on the Californian beaches, creating a net drift of the oil in the direction of wave propagation, known as the Stoke drift, bringing the oil on shore throughout the region. 

Within hours after the spill occurred, dead fish started washing up on shore. What effect does oil have on fish and other marine life, and why does it impact them so quickly? 

Grosell: Aside from the obvious oiling of marine birds and any marine mammals in the area, one of the key targets of oil exposure is heart function. Within hours of exposure, the ability of the heart to contract can be impacted by chemicals found in crude oil. Impaired hearing function leads to limited blood flow to the gills and may result in failure to take up oxygen from the water and deliver it to tissues needing it. In addition, sensory systems including the sense of smell, vision, and mechanoreception as well as the central nervous system are sensitive targets of oil exposure. 

What types of marine life in the Pacific, where the spill occurred, are affected? 

Grosell: Birds, marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates are all susceptible to oil exposure. Yet, oiled birds and floating dead fish represent a small tip of the iceberg. The most vulnerable organisms are embryos of larvae of most marine organisms including the fish in the area. The damage to these organisms is not evident from observations of dead animals found along the coastline. The coastline, estuaries, and marshes of Southern California are important ecosystems home to a high number of organisms and are nursing grounds for many delicate organisms.

How complicated are coastal management policies in California, and how limited is the state’s power to influence offshore oil and gas drilling? 

Suman: Amplify Energy’s two drilling platforms are located on a federally managed continental shelf nine miles off shore. The state of California owns submerged lands and manages resources therein within three nautical miles of its shores. The state has opposed offshore oil and gas drilling since the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 but has only limited ability to control drilling in the federal zone. California can participate and comment on these activities through procedures stipulated by the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, but the decision is ultimately federal. Moreover, the leases in question are existing, further limiting California’s capability to affect operations. Congress approved a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in federal waters adjacent to Southern California in 1982. Although this moratorium expired in 2008, there has been no federal leasing of blocks of the continental shelf off California since then.