Editorials

Oil spill inquiries show the need for real oversight

An oil-covered bird struggles near Santa Barbara. The Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years, had assured the government that a break in the line was "extremely unlikely" and easily detectable.
An oil-covered bird struggles near Santa Barbara. The Texas company whose ruptured pipeline created the largest coastal oil spill in California in 25 years, had assured the government that a break in the line was "extremely unlikely" and easily detectable. The Associated Press

Though federal investigators have yet to pinpoint the precise cause of last month’s Santa Barbara oil spill, the basic story is becoming less and less mysterious.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration revealed last week that the 28-year-old pipeline, buried just inland from a coastal paradise of beaches, had been severely eaten away by rot and corrosion. Unaddressed was who let it get to that point.

Refugio State Beach lies on an immaculate stretch of shoreline. It has been at risk for as long as oil development has gone on off the mineral-rich Santa Barbara coast.

We know this; California’s environmental movement grew out of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. In fact, the pipeline that ruptured was built as an environmentally responsible alternative in crude oil transport. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, inland pipes were thought to be easier to secure than the potentially leaky oil tankers that the industry used to move cargo along the coast.

But even best practices require policing. And records show that the federal regulators – and state fire marshals who, for a time, were deputized to do the federal inspections – clearly failed to force Plains All American Pipeline, the conduit’s Texas-based owners, to do proper maintenance.

Another report, in the Los Angeles Times, found that Plains All American has spilled nearly 2 million gallons of hazardous liquid in the U.S. and Canada over the last decade. The Times notes that an acquisition spree in the 1990s left the company holding untold miles of aging, falling-apart infrastructure, and that the section that burst here was 11 years old when the company bought it.

But decades have passed while Plains All American apparently used bubble gum and bailing wire to paper over real problems. Yet another report, by The Associated Press, said the company insisted that a spill was “extremely unlikely,” even as its response plan grew more and more outdated. We let Plains get away with it.

At last count, cleanup of the epic mess was barely half finished. Clots of tar were washing up as far south as San Clemente. About 100 oil-soaked and sickened seabirds and marine mammals had been rescued. About 150 more creatures had died.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams, who represent the area, will convene legislative hearings later this month. U.S. Rep. Lois Capps has requested a federal inquiry.

Williams wants mandatory shutoff valves on all pipelines, though Plains All American claims that wouldn’t have made a difference; Jackson wants annual pipeline inspections by the state, and speedier cleanups. Some lawmakers also want to ban new offshore drilling in the last part of the Santa Barbara coast where it’s still possible.

All fine, but how about just some real enforcement while we try to operate an oil industry and a paradise in the same space? Or is that too mysterious?

  Comments