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2021 California Oil Spill Becomes Call to Action for Environmentalists

October 18, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach in Corona Del Mar after an oil spill in Newport Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Scott Breneman told a congressional subcommittee Monday about how his fishing business was upended by the Orange County oil spill discovered off California’s coast on October 1.

After a day of fishing 90 miles off the coast, “We were coming in the harbor and I detected a distinct odor of oil,” Breneman said.

He and his crew checked their boat engine but determined the odor was coming from somewhere else. He found out the source the next day, when state environmental officials put out a press release saying oil was found leaking from an underwater pipeline emanating near an offshore oil rig.

Sales from his fishing operations and his restaurant along the shore plummeted, “down 90 percent these past few weeks,” he told a House Natural Resources subcommittee during a field hearing in Irvine, Calif.

“I’m not sure how long this is going to last,” Breneman said. “It brought me to the realization that something out of our control can completely control your life.”

Although the hearing focused on the Orange County oil spill, it could just as easily have been about fossil fuels and the need for alternative energy.

Lawmakers and expert witnesses bemoaned the increasingly deep hurt the oil industry is inflicting on the climate while pledging to find better options.

“The risks simply aren’t worth it,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., said about offshore oil drilling.

He said he spoke with his constituents about oil drilling and found the only ones who support it are oil industry executives and employees.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., said preparedness for oil spills needs to be improved as the United States only slowly weans itself off its addiction to fossil fuels.

“This is likely not to be the last one we see,” she said as the cleanup from the October spill continues off the coast of her home district near San Diego.

The Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast estimates California’s ocean economy contributes $53.4 billion to the state’s annual economy.

The spill was first reported to federal authorities by a passing ship whose crew spotted an oil slick on the evening of October 1. The next day, Huntington Beach officials closed their normally crowded beach as crude oil began washing ashore.

A quick investigation by the Coast Guard and commercial divers found a 17.7-mile pipeline connecting offshore oil platforms with the shore had been displaced, most likely after being dragged by a ship’s anchor. The pipeline is operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy.

The Coast Guard estimated the roughly 25,000 gallon spill spread over 8,320 acres of the ocean’s surface. The last California spill of similar size was the 2015 Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara County, which took four months to clean up.

California Department of Justice officials say they are working with federal, state and local authorities to find the exact cause of the spill.

Meanwhile, federal and state officials are turning to what can be done to help local businesses recover. Some of the heaviest damage fell on fishermen, tourist resorts and beachfront restaurants in the Huntington Beach area.

One proposal in only its early talking stages in Congress is $20 million in disaster relief funds. Another one would dedicate some of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Plan environmental funding to recover from the damage.

Michael H. Ziccardi, a University of California at Davis veterinarian, said wildlife contaminated by oil at Huntington Beach included seven rare snowy plover birds and at least one dolphin that had to be euthanized.

He drew parallels to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill near New Orleans when he talked about still undetermined risks to corals that form the cradle of sea life.

There is a chance of long-term effects,” Ziccardi said.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak was the biggest offshore oil spill in history. It damaged sensitive corals lying deep in the ocean.

Vipe Desai, founding member of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast, said the Orange County spill could be turned into an opportunity if political leaders use it as a wake-up call.

“Clean energy and offshore wind energy would be welcomed by California businesses,” Desai said.

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