Ship's anchor among possible causes of Orange County oil spill
Officials investigating one of California’s largest oil spills are looking into whether a ship's anchor may have struck a pipeline on the ocean floor, causing a major leak of crude into coastal waters and fouling beaches, authorities said Monday.
The head of the company that operates the pipeline said divers have examined more than 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) of pipe and are focusing on “one area of significant interest.”
An anchor striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher told a news conference.
Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area, Coast Guard officials said.
“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.
The latest suspected pipeline leak sent up to 126,000 gallons of heavy crude into the ocean, contaminating the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.
Environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.
“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said at a news conference Monday.
Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.
Amplify operates three oil platforms about 9 miles off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a 16-inch pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to be coming from a rupture in that pipeline about 4 miles from the platform.
In a 2016 spill-response plan submitted to federal regulators, the company said its worst-case spill scenario was based on the assumption of a “full guillotine cut” of the pipeline occurring 3 miles inland from one of its platforms. But an outside consultant concluded that a spill of that size was “very unlikely” at that location because the line is 120 feet deep and beneath a shipping lane where ships do not normally anchor.
The Beta oil field has been owned by at least seven different corporations since it was discovered by Royal Dutch Shell in 1976, records show. A corporate predecessor of Amplify bought the operation in 2012.
The Amplify subsidiary known as Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.
The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity. The worker survived. In a separate incident, crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.
In 1999, a 1.8-mile undersea pipeline running between two platforms sprang two separate leaks totaling at least 3,800 gallons of oil, causing tar balls to wash up on beaches in Orange County.
The cause of of the leaks was later determined to be corrosion that caused pin-sized holes in the steel walls of the pipeline. The owner of the field at the time, a partnership between Mobil Oil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. called Aera Energy LLC, was fined $48,000 by federal regulators — a penalty environmental groups criticized as a slap on the wrist.
Before the spill, Amplify had high hopes for the Beta oil field and was pouring millions of dollars into upgrades and new “side track” projects that would tap into oil by drilling laterally.
“We have the opportunity to keep going for as long as we want,” Willsher said in an August conference call with investors. He added there was capacity “up to 20,000 barrels a day.”
Investors shared Willsher’s optimism, sending the company's stock up more than sevenfold since the beginning of the year to $5.75 at the close of trading on Friday. The stock plunged more than 40% in morning trading Monday.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and emerged a few months later. It had been using cash generated by the Beta field and others in Oklahoma and Texas to pay down $235 million in debt.
The White House was “monitoring the oil spill and are very engaged in it," press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. The Biden administration was working with state and local partners to contain the spill, assess the effects and "address potential causes.”
Some residents, business owners and environmentalists questioned whether authorities reacted quickly enough to contain the spill. People who live and work in the area said they noticed an oil sheen and a heavy petroleum smell Friday evening.
But it was not until Saturday afternoon that the Coast Guard said an oil slick had been spotted and a unified command established to respond. And it took until Saturday night for the company to shut down the pipeline.
The spill comes three decades after a massive oil leak hit the same stretch of Orange County coast. On Feb. 7, 1990, the oil tanker American Trader ran over its anchor off Huntington Beach, spilling nearly 417,000 gallons of crude. Fish and about 3,400 birds were killed.
In 2015, a ruptured pipeline north of Santa Barbara sent 143,000 gallons (541,313 liters) of crude oil gushing onto Refugio State Beach.
The area affected by the latest spill is home to threatened and endangered species, including a plump shorebird called the snowy plover, the California least tern and humpback whales.