A year after it happened, more or less, the exact anniversary of the 2021 oil spill near Huntington Beach – Oct. 1 or Oct. 2 – remains a subject of controversy.
Likewise, the actual damage from the spill – at least as measured by the amount of harmful, smelly crude still left in local estuaries, and in terms of the money lost by locals who depend on fishing or tourism to pay their rent – is still being hashed out in a cluster of civil lawsuits.
Also, while state investigators have figured out the cause of the spill (a ruptured underwater oil pipe), the ship that dropped the anchor that caused the rupture has yet to be identified.
But one thing about the incident known to state investigators simply as “Pipeline P00457” is not a mystery:
At 25,000 gallons – well under the “potential maximum release” of 144,000 gallons that a year ago prompted CNN and others to send news crews to the sand – last year’s oil spill represents a bullet dodged.
“It could have been worse, that’s true,” said John Villa, executive director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, which manages the 141-acre estuary that turned out to take the brunt of the spill’s damage.
“We still don’t know the long-term effects,” Villa added. “But it’s clear that if it had been more oil, or a different level of response, the outcome could have been different.”
Still, Villa and others also say this: Even a small oil spill can be a big deal.
Oil spills aren’t particularly rare. At least 16 major spills have been reported worldwide since the start of 2020, including four in California, which is the sixth leading oil-producing state in the U.S.
And while most of those spills make news, briefly, some manage to prompt a lasting public response. The biggest oil spill in California history – a 1969 event in which roughly 3.8 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean from an offshore platform near the Santa Barbara coast – was one of the biggest environmental stories of the decade.
It also changed public opinion, and law, related to the environment.
Seven months after the spill, the California Lands Commission cited the Santa Barbara event as the specific reason for halting new oil leases in state waters, a move that in 1994 was codified into state law. And over time Santa Barbara was referenced in everything from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (in 1970) to later legislation that requires polluters to pay for the results of the pollution they cause. Santa Barbara even drew a mention in the first-ever Earth Day event, in April 1970.
But size and environmental damage aren’t the only things that give an oil spill the power to change minds. Location and timing matter, too, which is partly why, a year later, a lot of people still believe the Huntington Beach spill could be a catalyst for change.
The Huntington Beach spill, though smaller than initially feared, was a catastrophe. Beaches and estuaries were damaged. Thousands of waterfowl and other marine creatures were killed or injured. Businesses were closed, and the final day of the wildly popular Pacific Airshow was canceled. And, at its peak, the official response from state and federal agencies included about 1,800 workers getting oil out of sand and water from Huntington Beach to the Mexican border, according to a state report on the incident.
And, importantly, like Santa Barbara, the Huntington Beach spill was a media event.
Initially, media organizations reported the state’s early estimate that “as much as” 144,000 gallons had leaked when describing the amount of oil in the ocean. A slow-moving spill of that magnitude, affecting some of the most popular beaches on the planet, was huge national and international news.
“Our phones didn’t stop ringing for a while, from a lot of media,” said Garry Brown, founder of OC Coastkeeper, a nonprofit that protects local water resources.
“It was just a great opportunity to reignite the conversation about ocean protection.”
But even as the actual size of the spill came out, and national media interest faded, local news stories revealed a less-than-candid response from the oil company connected to the pipeline – Amplify Energy – a response that later was found to be criminally negligent. Other stories focused on spill-related financial losses for everybody from mom and pop fishing operators to big tourism companies like Disney.
And, critically, coverage also shed light on the byzantine economics of offshore oil production.
Though the underwater shelf off California’s coast currently produces only a tiny fraction of the oil used in the United States (and production hasn’t expanded even as oil prices have soared) the 20th century rules of offshore oil leasing, combined with state and federal laws, can make the state’s offshore oil world a bit of a zombie industry. Even in years when they lose money on their offshore platforms, it’s still in an operator’s interest to keep their leases active because the cost of capping an inactive offshore rig is big enough to drive modern operators out of business.
That dynamic, plus the idea that a lot of wealthy homeowners in Orange County beach cities got lucky when the Huntington Beach spill turned out to be smaller than initially feared, is why environmental activists and others still see last year’s spill as a potential game-changer when it comes to offshore drilling.
“There’s definitely a greater urgency, today, about ending oil production off the coast,” OC Coastkeeper’s Brown said. “The question, since the spill, has been this: How do we, collaboratively, working with operators and regulators, come up with a plan to retire the 27 oil platforms still left on our coast?
“That wasn’t necessarily the question we were all asking before last year.”
Action stalled, not dead
In the weeks after the spill, state and federal lawmakers held a series of local public hearings. Those sometimes emotional meetings prompted legislators to ask for federal assistance for local businesses and others hurt by the spill.
They also sparked a new round of proposals aimed at curbing or ending offshore drilling in California.
In February, State Sen. Dave Min, D-Costa Mesa, pitched a bill to ban all drilling in state waters and decommission the three platforms closest to the local coast. Though the bill called for state money to help shutter those operations, and wouldn’t have affected the 24 platforms in federal waters, it died after facing opposition from oil and labor interests. Min said in May, when the bill was killed, that he would continue working to end drilling in state waters.
A similar effort played out on the federal level.
Though Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, proposed legislation to end the oil operations in federal waters off Southern California in May, months before the spill, the environmental event became a key time to re-sell that idea to constituents and others.
Soon, Levin was talking offshore drilling statistics with multiple media outlets. For instance, he said:
• “California offshore drilling operations generate as much oil as the U.S. pulls out of the ground in one-third of one day.”
• “The ocean-related economy is worth about $7 billion a year in Orange and San Diego counties.”
• “It’s not a matter of if, but when, more oil is spilled on to our beaches.”
It didn’t work. By early this year, Levin’s bill was pulled out of the Build Back Better proposal, even before the bigger package died.
But this week, Levin said he’ll keep pushing to end offshore drilling – and that he believes last year’s spill still carries the power to change minds about that. If he’s right, it might be a lot of minds already want drilling to end. In 2020 – a full 15 months before the spill in Huntington Beach – a poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 72% of Californians oppose offshore drilling.
“That number probably didn’t go down after the spill,” Levin said of the polling.
“The momentum on this is only going to continue to build.”
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley agrees.
A year ago, her district included Huntington Beach, and she was among the county officials briefed just before the public was informed about the spill. In the year since, she said, local voters have only become more interested in action on drilling and other climate issues. The spill, she said, is a key reason why.
The initial fear that the spill would be more catastrophic than it turned out to be, and revelations of Amplify’s ineffective response to a ruptured pipeline near county shores, left a lot of locals angry and frustrated.
“Since the spill, people have sent a very, very strong message that there should be zero tolerance for oil companies that don’t manage their rigs properly,” Foley said.
That already played out, Foley added, in the size of the fines and other costs recently slapped on Amplify.
In a deal announced Sept. 8 by the state Attorney General and the Orange County District Attorney, Amplify officials admitted to criminal negligence related to the spill, saying they knew of the pipeline rupture for at least 16 hours before reporting the incident to state and federal authorities, as required by law.
As part of that deal, Amplify will pay about $5 million, or roughly 1.5% of its 2021 revenue, to settle state charges.
But Foley noted that the state fine comes on top of a series of payouts – $13 million to federal agencies, $1 million to the county – and as-yet undetermined civil payouts, estimated at about $25 million, for environmental damages, lost revenue and other costs. Combined, those payouts could hinder a comparatively small oil company.
“Those kinds of fines set a new standard for how we stop this in the future,” Foley said.
A year after the spill, local activists still see the spill as an environmental tragedy that brought with it at least some potential for positive change.
This week, a coalition of environmental, political and cultural organizations – Brown’s Coastkeeper, along with the Surfrider Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity, California Environmental Voters, the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast and the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples – issued a joint statement to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the spill.
The two-page statement, dated Sept. 29, urged the Biden administration to deny Amplify’s application to restart the still-shuttered pipeline involved in last year’s spill. The groups also said they want to take part in a process of assessing the full environmental damage caused by the spill, and in any future renovation planning.
The group’s statement also pointed to the spill as a reason to end offshore drilling.
“The 2021 Amplify Energy oil spill disaster was just the latest reminder of the unacceptable risks and impacts of offshore oil and gas development.”
For Huntington Beach estuary steward Villa that kind of talk is welcome but something for the future.
Estuaries, with slow-moving waters and an abundance of microscopic life, can take years longer than an open ocean to process toxins such as oil. And for now, though Villa’s estuary water looks normal and the smells from it are appropriately salty, it’s still unclear how much long-term damage was caused by the spill.
What Villa can say is that the county’s swift response almost certainly lessened that damage, whatever it turns out to be.
Villa said he learned about the spill while at the Pacific Airshow, early on Oct. 2. A city official near him received a message on his phone and said, “John, I think you’ll want to see this.”
Villa kept the number for Orange County Public Works on his speed dial and, within an hour, he was working with county officials to close off water to the inlet at the north end of the estuaries in his care.
But all of that happened at least 16 hours – and, critically, two high tides – after the first alarm sounded to indicate a leak in the pipeline, 4.2 miles away. By the time Villa got to the north end of the estuary, the damage was obvious.
“The smell of oil was strong enough to make your eyes water,” Villa said. “And there was not a single bird.”
A year later, Villa said he’s grateful for the work from “so many people” that helped keep the estuaries safe. But he indicated the event, in some ways, hasn’t ended.
“There’s no such thing as a small oil spill.”
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