By Harris Silver
There was no storm, no tidal wave, no earthquake, no act of nature that ruptured a 17-mile 40-year-old pipeline three miles off the coast of Southern California that led to an unknown quantity of oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean. Rather, it was – as all oil spills are – a preventable act.
Oil is toxic to marine life. While there have been reports of birds soaked in oil and dead fish, dead animals are not a way to keep score. They don’t begin to tell the story of the devastation to life from an oil spill, including to plankton – a food source to large and small aquatic animals. They don’t begin to shift our understanding of the ocean from a place that holds life, to something that itself is alive.
While an investigation will take months to complete the initial cause of the leak, is the likely entanglement of a cargo ship’s anchor with the undersea pipeline. While this may have happened, it is not the cause of the leak. The cause of the leak is lack of accountability, greed, and a broken regulatory system that allows for the unsafe extraction and transportation of oil through aging and improperly maintained network of underwater pipelines.
It’s not a surprise that the owner of the pipeline Amplify Energy was formed out of bankruptcy, has a history of financial and regulatory troubles, and is undercapitalized. When a company loses $35 million on revenue of $80 million as Amplify did last quarter, there are not conversations about how to spend more money on maintenance, training and procedures to increase safety. This is a company that is trying to stay afloat by milking an aging infrastructure for every last dollar in order to make payroll and meet their debt obligations.
When they do a costs analysis on infrastructure maintenance they don’t understand the costs. Because if they did, they wouldn’t be pumping oil through 40-year-old steel pipes laying on the ocean floor; they would shut the whole thing down, knowing that the cost was too high.
The marine environment is harsh and unforgiving to all materials especially steel which the pipeline is made from. The design life of the pipeline is 25 years yet this pipeline is 15 years past its design life.
The operators of the pipeline were alerted to the spill by a sheen of oil on the waters surface. Why didn’t a drop in pressure (which indicates an oil spill) have been cause for the immediate shut down of the pipeline? Why isn’t shutting the pipeline automated as a safety precaution when there is a drop in pressure?
Perhaps the investigation will address this when it’s complete. Out of date equipment, equipment that is not maintained properly, poor training, not following procedures, putting profits over safety – all of this may or may not come out in the investigation. We will see.
But what what we won’t see is the root cause of this problem is there is no accountability. The regulators are not accountable for allowing a financially unstable company to operate a pipeline decades past its design life. The company after polluting the commons only has to inform the coast guard. There are no other repercussion, other than the pressure on its stock price, which will recover quicker than the effects of the spill.
Imagine a scenario where all parties involved were held accountable? If the company knew that their permits to operate a pipeline would be revoked if they spilled oil would this have happened? If the company knew that they would be held financially responsible for all the costs associated with a spill would they be able to post an appropriate-sized bond or hold enough insurance?
If they were insured, would the insurance company require higher standards of operational safety in order to justify the risk of writing the policy? Would the managers of the company make the same decisions around maintenance, training and procedures if they knew they would be personally held accountable if a spill were to occur? Make no mistake that decisions would be made in a different way leading to different outcomes if there were accountability.
While the spill is unnatural, what is natural is for all of us to be upset by it. We feel a sense of resignation, that there is nothing to be done to prevent it. We think in terms of accidents, causation and inevitabilities. We don’t see this for what it is really is. How can we when the truth is an unimaginable nightmare? It is unimaginable that the U.S. subsidizes this dirty polluting industry with $649 billion a year of our tax dollars. It is unimaginable that there are only 130 regulators to watch over 55,000 active and decommissioned oil rigs in U.S. waters and over 40,000 miles of undersea pipelines, of which 18,000 miles have been abandoned. It is unimaginable that industry with a history of oil spills is allowed to self-regulate. It is unimaginable to think that that these companies are not different from zombies. They are too undercapitalized to properly maintain or decommission infrastructure operating past its operational life, so they pump and spill and pump and spill and there is nothing to stop them.
But it’s time that we end this nightmare because this spill was not only avoidable, it was completely unnecessary as both the oil is unnecessary as is the revenue it provides to the state of California. Yes, we need to oil run things, but we don’t need this oil. Whatever the investigation determines, what caused this is a broken system that allows an unqualified financially shaky company to control valuable resource extraction licenses that require expertise, and capital to maintain properly in aging infrastructure without proper regulatory oversight.
This nightmare has gone on long enough. It’s long past time to end oil drilling off the coast of California. That is the only outcome as the reasons for this spill greed, exploitation and gaming of regulations with no accountability are problems that won’t be solved, until there is systemic change starting with a government that works for the public to the protect the commons and not subsidizing corporate interests who are in business of exploiting them. The costs are just too high.
Harris Silver is an LA-based writer, surfer and open water swimmer.