• Ryan Higgins

Malfeasance on the Orange Coast

There is an imminent problem with the infrastructure of California’s offshore drilling industry. On October 2nd, the Associated Press caught their first gust of news from the Twitter account of the United States Coast Guard. An area of 13 square miles, or 5.8 nautical miles, was observed with a visible sheen immediately identifiable as oil. This ‘slick’ was in federal waters off the coast of California, several miles away from Newport Huntington Beach. At this point, the sludge had not yet made landfall and the cause of the spill was undetermined. State and federal officials were tasked with investigating why and how this incident occurred.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was the first to take action, deploying booms and skimmers, which are devices designed to curb the impact of oil spill on local wildlife, wetlands, and economies. 3,700 feet of ‘skimmers’ were deployed to collect oil off the surface of the water. Booms or floating barriers were also deployed to protect the most important areas, such as wetlands that were affected. In remote areas of the coastline, smaller-scale techniques were applied; techniques such as sponging and in-situ burning. Sponging involves a multi-use absorbent material, generally polyurethane or polyimide plastic. This spongey plastic is then coated in silane molecules, derived from silicone, to attract and collect oil molecules. In-situ burning is the controlled burning of oil on the surface of the water. The scope of what can be done about an oil spill of this suspected magnitude is not much, but any sort of mitigation is worthwhile. It was estimated that 126,000 gallons were spilled, a far cry from “deepwater horizon,” still not small potatoes.

On the following day, October 3rd, the cause of the spill was still not identified. The company whose oil remained in the Pacific ocean is currently known as Amplify Energy. It was believed approximately 3,000 barrels of oil had leaked into the ocean between 2:30 am and 6:00 am on the morning of October 1st. Amplify’s CEO Martyn Willsher said, “The company didn’t learn of the spill until 8:10 am when seeing oily sheen on the water.” Due to aging infrastructure and uncertainty, Amplify Energy did not shut off the pipeline immediately nor was an internal investigation conducted in a timely fashion. Furthermore, Amplify waited until 9:00 am on October 1st to contact the Coast Guard, breaking protocol for these situations.

It seems that there is a narrative developing about this company’s malfeasance. If we concentrate on the company’s internal matters, we can see that this isn’t the first time they have deflected on an issue like this. According to The Los Angeles Times, Amplify has received 125 different citations for federal non-compliance incidents and violations. Amplify Energy is the product of a merger between a company called Mid-States and Amplify. Prior to the merger, both companies had filed for bankruptcy.

The company paid $85,000 in fines in the year 2013 alone. Also according to the LA times subsidiary, “Beta Operating Co.” still operates a 17.3 mile long and forty-one-year-old pipeline. “Donald Boesch, who served on a federal commission formed to make recommendations after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said the infrastructure used by California’s offshore drillers is decades old, making it prone to failure.” (LA Times). It seems that Amplify is not the only company using environmentally unsafe and out-of-date tech. “In 2018, Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, and other environmental advocates took part in a fact-finding cruise along the California coast to inspect about a dozen oil platforms, some more than 40 years old. They saw rusted pipes and equipment and used an optical gas imaging camera to document flaring incidents on several platforms,” she said. “'So much of that infrastructure is old and corroded,: Sakashita said.” [The platforms] should have been decommissioned. (LA Times Quote)

While the state of the pipelines and business oversight is evidently subpar, this particular spill was not at the direct fault of Amplify Energy. On October 4th, Associated Press published another article, suspecting that it could have been the anchor of a cargo ship waiting their turn to dock in a back-logged seaport. Amplify’s pipeline that breached was built in 1984, and like many others of its kind, was not equipped with the best available shut-off mechanisms. Certain environmental groups have been pushing for advanced shut-off valves. Placed at calculated regimented distances from one another that more effectively terminate the flow of oil after shut-off is initiated. These valves cost lots of money and are not commonplace in the industry.

The new valves could have further mitigated the spill and prevented oil from entering the ocean but the truth is, Amplify got lucky. It was suspected before divers could investigate, that the line was completely severed, “a full guillotine cut”(Dazio, Weber). A literal deep dive showed that the line was only partially damaged, drastically changing the predicted volume of oil spilled. This information changed predictions of 125,000 gallons to “a minimum of 25,000 gallons.” The impact on shorebirds, beaches, and other wildlife was a fraction of the damage initially anticipated. Probably, the lasting effect from this will not result in long-term environmental damage. The next time there is a breach or spill we might not get so lucky, especially when delaying shut off for hours without cutting-edge technology.

Authorities are honing in on a boat responsible for damaging the pipeline. The Coast Guard has identified The Mediterranean Shipping Company as a suspect among other shipping companies. The rupture was a result of ‘anchor dragging’ by a vessel that was likely unintentional.

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