Five things to know about the California oil spill

An oil spill off the coast of Southern California has sent up to 144,000 gallons from an oceanic pipeline into the sea, closing beaches and serving as a reminder of how U.S. energy sources can be calamitous to the environment.

The spill isn’t as large or as devastating as others in recent history, but it’s had significant attention because of its proximity to millions of people.

Here are five things to know about the spill. 

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It came from an underwater pipeline

The spill comes from to an underwater pipeline connected to an offshore drilling platform called Elly. 

It’s not far from California’s Huntington Beach, though oil from the spill spread to beaches near a few cities in the region. 

Elly and the pipeline are operated by Beta Offshore Operating Co., which is a subsidiary of Amplify Energy. At the end of 2019, Amplify had 230 employees.  

A statement from the company on Monday said that Beta told the Coast Guard about the spill after noticing it on Friday. It said that as a precaution, it has shut down its energy production and pipeline operations in the area. 

According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Beta has received 53 warnings and 72 severe citations for violations of its safety or environmental standards. 

The exact cause isn’t yet known

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It’s unclear what caused the pipeline to spew oil into the Pacific, though one possibility under investigation is whether the pipeline was struck by an anchor. 

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said on Monday. 

Amplify CEO Martyn Willsher similarly called an anchor “one of the distinct possibilities.”

It could have both ecological and economic effects 

The spill is expected to impact wildlife and the economy. 

It has hit Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh — an area where 80 bird species have been counted. Some birds had been found covered in oil, but local news reported Monday that initial assessments showed fewer affected birds than originally expected.

“It’s just sad because you know that it’s impacting marine life, you know that it’s impacting wildlife,” Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), who represents a nearby district, told The Hill on Tuesday.

It’s also affecting beaches, prompting closures. 

“It settles into the sand, so people are stepping in it. It’s not attractive, it smells,” Steven Rosansky, president and CEO of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, told The Hill in an interview on Monday. 

It’s also expected to hit the local economy given the importance of tourism in the region.

“Our economy relies heavily on tourism and beachgoers and things like that ... but even more so we have businesses — restaurants and things — I was with a restaurant owner this morning whose restaurant’s right across the street and I imagine people are not coming down to the beach, they’re not going to stop by his place,” Rosansky said.

He also highlighted a local business that runs sport fishing boats, saying they “take their fisherman right exactly where the oil spill is.”

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife also halted fishing operations in the spill’s vicinity.

The spill has mobilized opponents of offshore drilling

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Politicians and advocates who oppose offshore drilling in California and elsewhere say the spill shows why more should be done to either restrict or ban offshore drilling. 

The state’s two senators and several members of its congressional delegation are among the critics. 

“We have the power to prevent future spills—that’s why I’m committed to ending offshore oil drilling,” Sen. Alex PadillaAlex PadillaPelosi on addressing climate through reconciliation package: 'This is our moment' Top Latino group endorses Padilla for full Senate term Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement on Monday. 

Many environmental advocates say such drilling should be off limits. 

“Offshore drilling remains dirty and dangerous,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director for Oceana. “Unfortunately, this is not a surprising outcome because when they drill they spill.”

It’s also happening as House Democrats are pushing to end offshore drilling in the Pacific Ocean — as well as in the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. 

A portion of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal drafted by the House Natural Resources Committee seeks to do just that. 

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“The urgency is self-evident, and this is just another component,” said Levin. “There’s so many critically important policies both in the Build Back Better Act and, frankly, in the bipartisan infrastructure framework.”

The former is the big spending package Democrats are crafting to move under budget reconciliation rules, while the latter is the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill already approved by the Senate.

Levin also stressed that the Democratic-only spending bill and the bipartisan bill were intended to be “tandem pieces of legislation” and should be passed together amid intraparty tensions over the timeline of the bills. 

It’s major — but smaller than historic spills like Deepwater Horizon

While the event is considered a major spill, it’s not nearly as large as other infamous spills like the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 or the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Those spills released 134 million and 11 million gallons of oil, respectively, into the ocean. The current spill’s 144,000 gallons is just a small fraction of that.

It’s also not the area’s first spill. In 1990, the oil tanker American Trader spilled almost 417,000 gallons of oil near Huntington Beach, Calif. In that incident, the ship’s own anchor struck the cargo tank.

Asked whether anything should be done to prevent future spills in the area, Rosansky said, “It clearly shows that we need to reassess the viability of having those platforms.”