The Orange County’s coast is the latest victim of the country’s unhealthy reliance on oil. In one of the largest California oil spills in decades, a pipeline connected to an oil rig off the coast of Huntington Beach released at least 126,000 gallons of crude oil over the weekend.
On Sunday morning, the smell of diesel and tar floated in the coastal air as lumps of crude oil washed ashore along with dead birds and fish. Out on the water there was a huge oil slick that was larger than the city of Santa Monica. And the crews worked feverishly to clean up the oil that had seeped into the fragile coastal wetlands and prevent major damage to this vital habitat for migratory birds. Orange County officials estimate the affected beaches could be closed for weeks or even months.
Because of this, the US must stop oil drilling on the coast.
Approximately 23 oil and gas rigs are in federal waters off the California coast. This spill is from a platform called Elly that was installed in 1980. Elly is over a large oil reservoir in waters monitored by the US Department of the Interior. Environmentalists have long warned that aging offshore oil facilities pose a serious risk, and one activist calls them “time bombs”.
No new drilling permits have been issued since the 1980s, but that almost changed under former President Trump. His administration tried to open all federal waters off the US coast to oil and natural gas exploration. The backlash from states was quick. Trump reversed course and proposed extending the ban on offshore drilling in select federal waters.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed a bill in January that would permanently prevent the federal government from allowing new leases to allow the exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state.
It’s not hard to see why states don’t want to see more drilling offshore. The local economy depends on tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, recreational boating, and other activities that benefit from clean, healthy coastal waters. In Huntington Beach, officials were forced to cancel the final day of the three-day Pacific Airshow, which draws thousands of people to watch the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and other jets fly overhead.
While large-scale spills are rare in California, they can be devastating when they occur. In 2015, a pipeline along US 101 broke and sent more than 100,000 gallons of oil to the nearby coast. About 204 birds and 106 marine mammals died as a result of the oil spill, and Refugio State Beach was closed for two months while workers tried to remove the oil. Leaks at sea are extremely difficult to clean up than on land, and the oil they release spreads with the currents. We already know the US must wean itself from oil and gas to help the planet avoid the worst effects of climate change.
This leak shows that the threat to the coastal environment is not just hypothetical and that we need to move much faster to stop oil drilling on the coast.