The Orange County coastline has become the latest victim of the country’s unhealthy dependence on oil. In one of the largest spills in California in decades, an oil pipeline connected to an oil rig off the coast of Huntington Beach released at least 126,000 gallons of crude over the weekend.
On Sunday morning, a smell of diesel and tar wafted through the coastal air as heaps of crude washed up, along with dead birds and fish. On the water, a vast slick of oil larger than the city of Santa Monica had formed. And the crews worked feverishly to clean up the oil that had seeped into the delicate coastal marshes and to prevent further damage to this critical habitat for migrating birds. Orange County officials believe the affected beaches could be closed for weeks or even months.
That is why the United States must end coastal oil drilling.
Some 23 oil and gas drilling rigs are located in federal waters off the California coast. This spill came from a platform called Elly, which was installed in 1980. Elly sits above a large oil reservoir, in waters supervised by the US Department of the Interior. Environmentalists have long warned that aging offshore oil installations pose a serious risk, with one activist calling them “time bombs.”
New drilling permits haven’t been issued since the 1980s, but that almost changed under former President Trump. His administration has sought to open all federal waters off the coast of the United States to oil and gas exploration. The reaction of the States was swift. Trump has backed down and proposed to extend bans on offshore drilling in some federal waters.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a bill in January that would permanently ban the federal government from authorizing new leases to allow exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas off the coast of California, from Oregon and Washington State.
It’s not hard to see why states don’t want to see more offshore drilling. Local economies depend on tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, boating and other activities that benefit from clean and healthy coastal waters. In Huntington Beach, authorities had to cancel the last day of the three-day Pacific Airshow, which draws thousands to watch overflights of US Navy Blue Angels and other jets.
While large-scale spills are somewhat rare in California, they can be devastating when they do occur. In 2015, a pipeline along US 101 ruptured and sent over 100,000 gallons of oil to the nearby coast. Some 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the spill, and Refugio State Beach was closed for two months while workers attempted to remove the oil. Spills at sea are exceedingly more difficult to clean up than those on land, and the oil they release spills with the currents. We already know that the United States must wean itself off from oil and gas to help the planet avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
This spill illustrates that the threat to the coastal environment is not only hypothetical and that we must act much faster to phase out coastal oil drilling.