Oil spill: California has flirted with this kind of large-scale disaster for decades

Oil spill: California has flirted with this kind of large-scale disaster for decades
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I’m not sure which came first when I heard about this weekend’s devastating oil spill off the coast of California’s Orange County: anger, disgust or sadness.

But I can’t say I was surprised.

California has been flirting with this kind of large-scale disaster for decades. We’ve known for a long time that oil pipelines are dangerous and routinely fail. The result this time was 144,000 gallons of crude spilling into the Pacific Ocean, coating our beaches and leaving wildlife to navigate through a deadly mess — again.


The specific cause of this spill appears to be a rupture of one of the many aging oil pipelines snaking along the California coast. The oil platforms were built around 40 years ago — so they’re old, corroding and should have been decommissioned long ago. The pipelines that serve them aren’t much better

But there’s a larger culprit here too. Year after year, state and federal governments have ignored the well-documented dangers of offshore drilling, relying on a few fixes and crossing their fingers that catastrophe won’t strike.

Time and again, that denial has turned deadly: The Refugio oil spill off Santa Barbara in 2015. The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 1 million birds. Exxon Valdez in 1989. The gigantic Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. Between each of these horrific man-made disasters have been thousands of other oil spills, broken pipes, accidents and injuries that didn’t make the national news.

Now, we’re adding the spill off Huntington Beach, Calif. to that infamous list, and the consequences are becoming clearer every day. Dead fish and birds are already washing ashore, and dolphins were reported swimming through the oil slick.

Crude oil has now saturated the Talbert Marsh ecological reserve, which is home to dozens of bird species. Among them is the endangered western snowy plover, a sparrow-sized shorebird that’s often seen scurrying across the beach. In fact, before the oil spill, the plovers had just started nesting and raising their young on Huntington Beach for the first time in more than 50 years.

It could be months, even years, before we understand the full damage of the current spill, especially as it oozes out from the origin of the rupture. This stretch of shoreline is a rich ecosystem that supports sea otters, dolphins, migrating whales and countless other species. For people, its beaches are some of the most popular in California.

Yet, day after day oil companies insist on putting all this in jeopardy — and federal and state officials let them. The reality is that offshore drilling can’t be done safely — and spills like these are routine, not exceptions. It’s long past time for this drilling to end.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen how things go after an oil spill. We see outrage, headlines, investigations, reports and a lot of talk about reforms that will make the industry more accountable and reduce the risk of spills. The response nibbles at the edges (at best) but never addresses the fundamental causes of why this keeps happening.

It should be different this time. President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE should follow through on his promise to end all federal oil and gas leasing and phase out existing drilling. California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAlarm grows over smash-and-grab robberies amid holiday season Newsom pledges increased spending on busting retail crime rings The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE (D) should stop giving permits to oil companies and get offshore platforms in state waters decommissioned. And Newsom must end neighborhood drilling, to protect the more than 2 million Californians who live within half a mile of an oil or gas well.  

The result wouldn’t just be an end to the toxic spills that kill wildlife and ruin our beaches. Winding down drilling offshore and on land is also necessary to address climate crisis, because 85 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from oil, gas and coal. The same oil that’s fouling Southern California’s celebrated coastline is also fueling the deadly wildfires, droughts and superstorms that escalate each year.

Our leaders must embrace truly clean and just energy solutions and leave fossil fuels in the ground. As we bear witness to the tragedy unfolding off Huntington Beach, we must demand that the president and other leaders make this oil spill disaster our last.

Miyoko Sakashita is director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program.