Gulf communities live California's oil spill every day

Gulf communities live California's oil spill every day
© NOAA

Headlines across the country are lamenting another environmentally catastrophic offshore oil spill. Off California’s coast in the affluent Huntington Beach and Orange County area, a Beta Offshore pipeline released up to 131,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, covering shorelines. As the chief executive of Amplify Energy Corp. noted, they didn’t “expect it to be more,” as it was already the “entire capacity of the pipeline.”

As tragic as another oil spill is for communities’ economic and environmental well-being, the neglect of the oil industry is something we struggle with every day on the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, I recently compiled government data showing that offshore Gulf pipeline leak rates are 10.28 times the national rate. Those are just the reported incidents. It’s even worse than I could have imagined, and I have been working in this field for 11 years. Our coastal areas aren’t lined with high-end mansions that so often garner headline news: Gulf Coast communities are frontline Black, Indigenous and people of color and low-income families who have been living with devastating impacts for decades. 

The unfortunate reality is that the oil spills impacting the Gulf of Mexico are so frequent that they hardly make headlines. It’s even hard for environmental professionals like me to keep track of them all. One of the largest oil spills in U.S. history started in 2004 after a Gulf hurricane. Known as the Taylor Oil Spill, it is only now being contained after 15 years of soiling the Gulf. It continues to leak up to 700 gallons of oil and 0.7 tons of methane daily into Mississippi Canyon, where Tuna and Sperm whales hunt. I’ve been flying over that oil slick for 11 years, and while I am relieved that the oil is being contained, no permanent solution has yet to be executed.

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Studies show that oil spills cause increased respiratory problems, pneumonia, migraines, anxiety and depression, among many other adverse human health impacts. In the Gulf, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is still harming humans and killing dolphins. Meanwhile oil slicks from the latest round of spills, particularly following Hurricane Ida, still shimmer in the setting sun. There is so much oil covering our marshes, islands and Gulf that we have had to enlist the help of trained volunteers and created a citizen science tool where regular citizens have documented over 200 Gulf spills spanning 2,000 square kilometers through aerial imagery taken after Hurricane Ida.

This latest tragedy in California is another wake up call to finally end this broken system of exploitation, which destroys livelihoods and lives at the hands of Big Oil. The lax federal offshore drilling safety measures indicate Big Oil’s outsized influence on elected officials and decision makers and underscore this broken system. While the Trump administration scrapped many standards meant to prevent these disasters, the Biden administration has failed to swiftly restore even basic protections. Now, the administration is backtracking by opening up over 79 million additional acres in the Gulf to Big Oil. Even after this latest spill in California, in which the corporation’s own pressure sensor warning system failed, allowing the leak to continue for at least 10 hours before being reported, few if any reforms have emerged. 

President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE has broken his promise to America to ban “new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.” Why are we still here, subjected to a system that is laying waste to our economically and ecologically valuable coast? The Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau’s close ties with Big Oil might help explain it, but it’s a fundamental question Biden must answer.  

Biden was right about one thing: This is a “code red” moment for our climate, as indicated by a recent UN report. Yet, there is no indication his administration will back down from the 79 million acre oil and gas lease auction for the Gulf of Mexico next month. Fortunately, environmental advocacy group Earthjustice filed a challenge to the Gulf sale in federal court on behalf of Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity, due to unlawful environmental analysis. Biden’s decision will put many more at risk. We in the Gulf stand in with our new allies in California and with all threatened coastal communities in imploring Biden to finally end Big Oil’s exploitation as promised.

Scott Eustis is the community science director for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit organization committed to providing Gulf Coast communities with the tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources.