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California oil spill: Environmentalists call for federal review of offshore drilling operations in incident

The Center for Biological Diversity says that drilling and equipment in the spill operate under plans that have not been reviewed in 4 decades.
Image: Oil spill pipeline
The pipeline which spilled tens of thousands of gallons of oil off the coast of Orange County, Calif., on Oct. 4, 2021.U.S. Coast Guard via AP

LOS ANGELES — A major environmental group has put the federal government on notice: Review offshore drilling operations involved in an oil spill off the California coast last month, or be prepared for a lawsuit.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management submitted Tuesday morning, attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity argue that drilling and equipment implicated in the spill operate under federally approved plans that have not been reviewed in four decades. The national nonprofit conservation organization suggests changes in the volume of production or emissions necessitate a review, yet none has been done.

The oil industry often pushes back at critiques that its infrastructure is aging, but by the time an undersea pipe spilled at least 25,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean near Orange County in early October, at least one of the platforms in the complex was more than 10 years past its expected date of abandonment.

Kristen Monsell, legal director for the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, says advances in science since the platforms were built in the early 1980s should trigger a review, even without a spill.

“Some of these platforms were constructed before our most fundamental environmental laws were even enacted,” she said. “We know a lot more now than we knew then about just how harmful offshore drilling is to our ocean and our climate.”

Among the evolving science is not just the consequences of oil production, but also the strain the environment places on the equipment to extract, process and move crude from offshore.

In its letter to federal regulators, the Center for Biological Diversity references two studies that examine the impacts of aging and corrosion on steel pipelines.

The first, from both academic and U.S. government scientists, suggests that while age naturally increases the probability of a line’s failure, it increases rapidly after 20 years. The other, by Korean and Malaysian researchers, looks at the effect of corrosion on steel that is stretched to or beyond its elastic limit as appears to have been the case for the ruptured pipe. It found that steel under that much stress corrodes faster, by at least 10 to 15 percent.

Investigators are probing the cause of the pipeline rupture, which they believe may have been triggered when a cargo ship’s anchor dragged the pipeline out of its original position months before the leak, bending but not breaking the line.

The line and associated platforms, owned by Texas-based Amplify Energy, are in a congested shipping area, a location that was not expected to be an issue in 1977 when a consortium of oil companies led by Shell filed to construct the complex. Documents from that year only address the platform locations themselves in regard to passing ship traffic, not any worry about the undersea pipe that remains shut down as the investigation continues.

The Coast Guard, which is leading that investigation, could not confirm Monday night that an analysis of the pipe to examine for corrosion had begun.

A spokesperson for Amplify Energy said the company remains committed to the cleanup.

“We remain focused on environmental remediation efforts,” the company said in a statement Monday, adding, that it was “cooperating with the various regulatory agencies who are investigating this matter.”

The company has said it plans to resume oil production at the Beta complex when it receives regulatory approval.