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Orange County oil spill renews calls to ban offshore drilling

Oil platforms Elly and Ellen
Oil platforms Elly and Ellen stand about nine miles offshore from Huntington Beach.
(Sean Greene / Los Angeles Times)

A massive oil spill off the Orange County coast that’s fouled beaches and ecologically sensitive wetlands in what officials are calling an environmental catastrophe has renewed calls to ban offshore drilling.

The spill, first reported Saturday morning but perhaps detected the night before, originated from a pipeline running from the Port of Long Beach to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. The failure caused as much as 144,000 gallons of oil to gush into the Catalina Channel.

In the days that followed, the spill has left crude along stretches of sand in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, killing fish and birds and threatening sensitive marine habitats.

A massive oil spill off the Orange County coast has fouled beaches and killed birds and marine life

“The ecological and economic damage from this oil spill has the potential to reverberate for generations,” state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) said this week. At a news conference Tuesday, Min called the spill “either a case of negligence or inaction.”

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“The legislation after the Santa Barbara damage [from the Refugio spill in 2015] was meant to prevent this,” he said. “It really speaks to the need to get rid of these oil rigs.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a news conference at Bolsa Chica State Beach on Tuesday afternoon that it’s “time once and for all to disabuse ourselves that [oil drilling] has to be part of our future.”

“This is part of our past, and we can moralize and talk about the good old days, we can talk about how important these rigs had been to the prosperity of this country in the middle class, but at the end of the day, this is about the stale air of normalcy versus the fresh air of progress,” he said.

Officials first learned Friday night an oil slick was likely, but it wasn’t until the following evening that the public was told how serious it was.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about the aging infrastructure of oil platforms off the California coast, which has reinvigorated debate about whether the government should allow new drilling. No new offshore oil drilling has been approved in federal waters off the state coastline since 1984.

The Trump administration in 2018 proposed to open offshore oil and natural gas reserves, including those in the waters off California, for exploration. California — along with New Jersey, Delaware, New Hampshire and other coastal states — passed laws blocking new oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure from being built on state lands. These restrictions make transporting oil prohibitively expensive.

“This oil spill is a tragic reminder that offshore drilling is a devastating threat to our coast and its wildlife,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program. “I’ve seen the aging oil platforms off Huntington Beach up close, and I know it’s past time to decommission these time bombs. Even after fines and criminal charges, the oil industry is still spilling and leaking into California’s coastal waters because these companies just aren’t capable of operating safely.”

Legislation reintroduced this year by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), dubbed the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, seeks to permanently ban oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.

In May, U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) introduced legislation to prohibit any new leasing for the exploration, development or production of oil or natural gas along the Southern California coast, from San Diego to the northern border of San Luis Obispo County.

“The Southern California coast is home to world-renowned beaches, cherished marine life and billions of dollars in ocean-based economic activity that are central to our quality of life but are threatened by offshore drilling,” he said at the time. “My bill to ban new offshore drilling leases recognizes that it’s time to put our environment and our coastal economy first, not the fossil fuel companies that profit while polluting our coastline.”

Alexandra Nagy, California director for Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, said the spill in Orange County is further proof of the “devastation wreaked by fossil fuels on our environment.”

“The hard truth is that fossil fuels breed bigger disasters as our climate warms,” Nagy said. “Gov. [Gavin] Newsom must end all new permitting for fossil fuel drilling right now to protect Californians from worse disasters to come.”

On Tuesday, longtime Huntington Beach resident Sumio Uchida rolled up to the beach on his longboard to inspect the aftermath from the spill. The 67-year-old watched as a large yellow bulldozer pushed sand toward the mouth of the Huntington Beach Channel, creating a barrier designed to slow oil from floating to the adjacent wetlands.

Nearby, cleaning crews on two boats began to replace booms that had been used to absorb some of the oil. They picked up the blackened barriers and dropped them into a large plastic bag.

“This is sad,” Uchida said. “This is why offshore oil drilling needs to stop.”

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.


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