Orange County oil spill spurs more calls for offshore oil drilling bans

Calls for banning or more strictly regulating offshore oil drilling increased today as Orange County federal lawmakers held a field hearing on the impact of the Huntington Beach oil spill.

The Joint Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee hearing featured testimonials from Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network; UC Santa Barbara professor David L. Valentine; West Caught Fish Company owner Scott Breneman; and Vipe Desai of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, zeroed in on what she characterized as “subsidies” of oil companies that cause spills in the ocean off the Southern California coast.

Porter noted that about 250,000 pounds of “oily debris” has been collected from local beaches along with 14 barrels of tar balls following the leak that was first reported Oct. 2.

“That is a small fraction of the oil that was released, most of which was released into the ocean and is making its way into the food chain and to the ocean floor,” she said. “… We will not learn the long-term consequences for many years to come.”

Porter pledged a “full and fair and complete investigation of the circumstances of this leak,” but she wanted to make sure all of the regulatory and law enforcement agencies complete their investigations before “talking about accountability.”

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said it was a “welcome relief” to know that the spill, which was initially estimated at 144,000 gallons, will likely be closer to 25,000 gallons.

“But that’s little solace for the shop owners, vendors, fishermen and other small businesses whose lives were upended in a matter of moments and who are still recovering today,” Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal echoed Porter’s comment that the cause of the leak will be thoroughly investigated.

“We will get to the bottom of the leak and hold the responsible parties, including (Huntington Beach oil rig and pipeline owner) Amplify Energy, accountable for their actions,” Lowenthal said.

“Preventing new offshore drilling is a critical first step and one that we are actively working to ensure remains in the Build Back Better Act working its way through Congress,” Lowenthal said. “But we must also work to wind down current production and mandate that companies decommission their old platforms, wells and pipelines and clean up the mess they leave behind.”

Rep. Mike Levin, D-Dana Point, said oil spills in recent years have occurred for a variety of reasons.

“But the common denominator is drilling, because (when) they drill they will spill,” Levin said. “It cannot be done without significant risk.”

Levin also said the amount of oil extracted offshore is a “drop in the bucket,” and the annual amount totals about one-third of one day extracted by the industry as a whole.

“The risks simply aren’t worth it,” he said. “And I challenge anyone in the oil industry to explain how the economic and environmental risks in coastal Southern California in particular are worth it.”

Birds are seen as workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach after an oil spill in Newport Beach, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday, to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. AP photo Ringo H.W. Chiu.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego, said environmental and wildlife protection “are two of the top concerns I hear from  my constituents,” and added, “We need to focus on decommissioning (existing oil rigs) as soon as possible.”

The field hearing was meant to gauge the impact of the spill on the area, and Breneman offered a stirring account of how the oil spill has affected his fishing business, which goes back four generations.

Breneman recalled how he was fishing Oct. 1 and he “detected a distinct odor of oil” in Newport Harbor. At first he thought it was coming from a spill on his own boat, and he checked hoses and anywhere else on the boat that could have malfunctioned.

Once the oil spill was confirmed, “My fish sales dropped drastically, down 90%,” he said, adding that his customers are “scared, worried the product is contaminated.”

He recalled how his father “struggled” through similar circumstances following another oil spill in the 1990s.

“I’m seeing the exact same thing happening here,” he said.

He added that because of harbor closures, his boat was “trapped” in Newport Harbor, so, “I wasn’t even able to service my accounts. And to tell you the truth it’s been a very difficult couple of weeks. … I’m not sure how the public is going to respond to it in the long term.”

Breneman emphasized that he fishes 90 miles off shore and 3,000 feet deep in “pristine waters,” so his haul is not contaminated.

Desai pointed out how the oil spill shut down the Pacific Air Show in Huntington Beach, which had its own economic impacts. He said Wahoo’s Fish Taco owner Wing Lam told him that on the Saturday before the oil spill, business on the pier was like a “busy summer day,” but after the leak, “it felt like a ghost town.”

Bobby Abdel, the owner of Jack’s Surfboards, is dealing with a large inventory of surfboards sitting idle on the shelves, Desai said.

“I could go on and on with the stories,” Desai said. “The message is clear. Where they drill they spill and when they spill, working-class people are stuck with the consequences. … A clean and healthy ocean is what drives our local economy.”

When Porter asked Desai if Small Business Administration loans would help, he said yes, but added that business owners “don’t want a handout or a hand up or anything, but in circumstances like this any assistance is welcome.”

Porter said the subsidiary of Amplify Energy that operates the pipeline that leaked in Huntington Beach received “nearly $20 million from the federal government, specifically because the oil wells they operate are at the end of their lives and not producing much oil, which makes them less profitable.”

She suggested that money would be better spent aiding local businesses.

She said the company would get another $11 million for new oil wells. The Build Back Better Act would cut those types of programs, Porter said.

Desai endorsed the Huntington Beach City Council’s proposed resolution calling for an end to offshore drilling and encouraged other local cities to do the same.

Lowenthal noted that Amplify Energy also received a $5.5 million in pandemic relief in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program loan that was forgiven.

Ziccardi testified how one oil-slicked dolphin had to be euthanized. He said dolphins are especially vulnerable to oil leaks because they can ingest it, which affects their immune, reproductive and gastrointestinal systems.

Ziccardi said his team collected seven Snowy Plover birds that are a federally threatened species that has been recently nurtured back into a growing population. All of the birds survived, with four back in the wild and three expected to be released by Wednesday, he said.

The birds have been banded so officials can keep track of them going forward, Ziccardi said.

Ziccardi said the key to saving the wildlife is programs such as his network, which can provide around-the-clock response teams immediately. The first-aid and triage of the animals is key to saving them, he said.

Meanwhile, actress Jane Fonda brought her star power to Laguna Beach Monday to join a group of local lawmakers who called for an end to offshore oil drilling. A protester with a bullhorn heckled Fonda, who quipped, “It’s not like I’m not used to this.”

Fonda asked the activists to take a deep breath and then pointed out that “well over half of the oxygen you just breathed in comes to us because of that,” pointing to the ocean.

Fonda argued that the existing oil rigs in California are “not safe and must be shut down and decommissioned,” but added, “This isn’t enough,” and society must quickly transition to more clean-energy initiatives.

“Climate scientists are calling this code red, an existential crisis,” Fonda said. “It is important we understand that.”

Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, said he would introduce legislation to ban offshore oil drilling, and Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said she was working on a clean-energy plan for the county.

“The time for action is now and we know there’s only one way to end more oil spills and that’s to end all offshore drilling,” Min said.

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, also said she favors a ban on offshore drilling.

“This spill is a call to action,” she said. “So let’s make this happen. Let’s not just talk about it, let’s not just tweet about it. Let’s make this happen.”

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