The only way to eliminate the risk of catastrophic oil spills is to stop drilling

The only way to eliminate the risk of catastrophic oil spills is to stop drilling
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Fossil fuel companies continue to profit from pumping oil while polluting our water and air. Our coastlines take a huge hit when oil is spilled, as we’re seeing in Southern California right now. Despite the long history of oil disasters, including recent spills in Santa Barbara, San Francisco Bay, and now Huntington Beach, there is still no federal or state plan for a just transition away from an extractive fossil fuel economy.

We need federal action to shut down offshore oil drilling and phase out extraction altogether.

When the Trump administration threatened to open federal waters off the U.S. coastline to new oil leases, people protested in droves. We knew then and we know now: When we drill, we spill. No amount of so-called safeguards from oil companies and regulators can fix this dirty and dysfunctional industry.

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We successfully fended off Trump’s new offshore drilling leases, yet our government still allows new ocean drilling through existing leases. Amplify Energy — owner of the offshore oil pipeline that just leaked more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil in Southern California’s coastal waters — has plans to “initiate new drilling” in the same general areas within the next three months. 

Oil companies get permits to drill and transport oil while promising to operate safely and then, inevitably, they fail. There is no way to eliminate the risk of catastrophic spills. Valves will leak, pipelines will corrode or be severed, well casings will blow — the list goes on. The only way to prevent oil disasters is to stop drilling. 

The public has no means to challenge oil companies with a history of safety and environmental violations that directly threaten our livelihoods and quality of life. Most offshore drilling infrastructure in California is at least four decades old, and there is no transparency into how the industry plans to fix their aged pipelines. We can only sit back and wait for disaster to strike. Then we watch in anguish as our fisheries and ecosystems, and our own health and economy, pay the price. 

This latest spill is just the most visible environmental impact of oil drilling. It is heartbreaking to see dolphins swimming through black goop, oiled birds collapsing on the shoreline, dead fish washing up and beaches emptied of surfers, swimmers and children building sandcastles. And we can’t even see the impact on the plankton, the tiny plants and animals that float in the ocean waters and are the basis of marine food webs that sustain fish, mammals, birds, and of course people. 

Agencies will try to calculate the cost of the damage, but they will not be able to account for all of it, nor for how long the devastation will last. Amplify’s spilled oil has already traveled about 50 miles, making it as far south as Oceanside in San Diego County. Impacts from the worst oil spill in American history, the 2010  Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, were still being discovered 10 years after the spill. The oil spread farther, sank deeper and was lethal to more habitats than anyone expected — the same is happening with this spill, too.

Why are we prioritizing the profits of one industry over the health and safety of all? Oil from California’s offshore waters makes up only one-tenth of 1 percent of all the oil pumped in the U.S. every day. Is this really worth the damage we must suffer? 

The problem is not just on the coast. Everywhere we look, we see government inaction allowing dangerous fossil fuel operations that harm Californians. The state has been incredibly slow to respond to activists demanding regulation of drilling in our neighborhoods, despite the extremely damaging and well-documented impacts of air pollution on the people who live nearby. In April, California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAppeals court blocks California vaccine mandate for prison workers Apple, Nordstrom stores hit in latest smash-and-grab robberies Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE (D) called for new protections, but the responsible state agency has missed every deadline and no new protections have been enacted. Los Angeles County has taken a more concrete step, finally adopting a plan this year to revoke active drilling licenses as soon as legally permissible under existing state laws. But it could still be years before we see real change.

Inaction adds up to a big loss for the US; it takes our investment away from good paying jobs in clean energy and technical innovation, and it ultimately leaves people more vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change. 

Federal action is needed to stop offshore drilling immediately and prevent the next tragedy in our coastal waters. What our government decides to do now will impact future generations, and history won’t look kindly on the politicians who side with a dirty and dying industry.

Shelley Luce is CEO of Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit fighting for clean and healthy coastal waters.