LOS ANGELES – Hoping to recover a lost anchor chain, a workboat dragged a grapple along the seabed near an oil rig off the southern California coast. But he hooked up something else – a pipeline carrying crude oil from the towering platform to shore.
Once hooked up, the 197-foot (60-meter) boat dragged the pipeline until it broke on one of the legs of the drilling rig. The gushing oil created a slick that ran for miles along the coast of Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles.
The May 1991 accident provides insight into the environmental dangers and trade-offs that accompany the world-famous offshore oil rig and pipeline system off Southern California’s coastline. The difficult relationship is being tested again after a leaking underwater pipeline off Huntington Beach tainted beaches and killed seabirds and fish this month.
In the latter case, investigators believe it is likely that a cargo ship’s massive anchor struck and dragged the 16-inch (41-centimeter) pipeline up to a year ago. It is suspected that the damage led to the cracking of the pipeline and the spillage of approximately 25,000 gallons (94,635 liters) of crude.
The incident has renewed calls to end drilling in coastal waters and comes amid a societal math over climate change and continued dependence on fossil fuels. It also raises questions about the soundness of old equipment, the limits of government safety oversight, the willingness of companies to make the necessary investments in repairs, and whether it makes sense to have drilling and pipelines near one of the busiest port complexes in the world.
The latest spill involved an oil pipeline that serves a group of three oil platforms several miles from the coast, south of Los Angeles. The original owner, Shell Oil, began operating the “beta unit” in 1980 and expected the operation to last around 35 years, “by which time the rig and other offshore facilities will be removed and the wells sealed ”.
They are now operating in a fourth decade.
The platforms and pipeline are owned by Houston-based Amplify Energy Corp., which came into being after the previous owner, Memorial Production Partners, went bankrupt in 2017. Subsidiary Beta Offshore operates the platforms and pipeline.
In 2011, Beta applied for and received approval to replace two pipelines connecting its platforms – one for oil that had been decommissioned due to corrosion damage, and the other for water. considered “at the end of its useful life” in the documents submitted. to federal regulators.
Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes offshore drilling, said the withdrawal of the old pipelines should have been a signal that the failed one was also in danger.
“I am very concerned that they recognized the corrosion and the age of the pipes between the rig, but this one was ignored,” she said. “California’s offshore oil infrastructure is old and decrepit and needs to be decommissioned immediately.
There are 27 oil and gas platforms off the California coast. Federal officials have jurisdiction over 23 years, which range from nearly 30 years to over 50 years and are in water depths of 95 feet (29 meters) to nearly 1,200 feet (366 meters) according to a report. published last year by the Aquarium of the Pacific co-sponsored by the California State Lands Commission, which oversees pipelines in state waters.
About half of the rigs still produce oil, which runs from wells to rigs and refineries through a pipeline network like the one in the recent oil spill.
Environmentalists have long complained about poor federal oversight of pipeline companies. In April, a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, revealed fundamental problems in the way officials monitor these lines – a problem first recognized in 2007.
The report focused on approximately 8,600 miles (13,840 kilometers) of lines in the Gulf of Mexico. He said the Home Office’s Environmental Safety and Enforcement Office allows companies to use unreliable methods to detect leaks and has not systematically tracked whether pipelines are moving or are exposed due to strong currents or changes to the seabed.
A senior aide to Home Secretary Deb Haaland acknowledged the problems and officials said new rules could be finalized next year. These will include significant changes to requirements for leak detection, inspections, repairs to pipelines and other areas, said Laura Daniel-Davis, the agency’s senior deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management. , in a letter to GAO published last month.
The fewer pipelines in the Pacific compared to the Gulf means federal regulators can more closely monitor California’s coasts, said John Smith, who has spent more than three decades with the agency that manages oil and gas production. gas, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and its predecessor, the Minerals Management Service.
But he added that the Amplify spill will test whether that oversight was enough for something predicted decades ago.
In 1991, the Federal Minerals Management Service predicted a 94% probability of a major oil spill off Southern California over 30 years. This estimate was released shortly after an oil spill blackened the coast at Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, and the pipeline rupture that created the slick off Ventura County.
The petroleum industry – the source of 150,000 California jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in state taxes over the years – has long been a delicate partner with the environmentally conscious state, a national leader renewable energies which will prohibit the sale of new gasoline. – passenger cars and motorized trucks in 2035.
A moratorium was imposed on new oil and gas leases in state waters after a devastating 1969 spill in Santa Barbara that helped spur the modern environmental movement. Now U.S. Representative Michelle Steel, a Republican from Orange County, wants to temporarily ban freighters from anchoring or idling off the county’s coast, calling the backlog of ships waiting to be unloaded an “environmental crisis and public health ”.
Oil production in federal Pacific waters has been down 90% since 1995, and no new drilling leases have been sold since the early 1980s. As crude reservoirs beneath the rigs California offshore are running out, this means declining industry profits.
“It’s very difficult for them to make major investments in equipment and pipelines,” Smith said.
Authorities have identified a narrow crack in the Amplify pipeline as the source of the recent spill. What caused the break-up remains a mystery that may never be elucidated.
Coast Guard investigators suspect the line was hit by a multi-ton anchor from one of the thousands of freighters that use the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles each year. The pipe was bent and dragged up to 105 feet (32 meters), its concrete casing cracked, and then may have been struck again by other anchors.
Safety inspections in 2015, 2017 and 2019 revealed anomalies in Amplify’s pipeline, including cases of metal loss and three dents that had already been repaired. But several experts who reviewed the reports said the metal loss – which may be a sign of thinning of the pipe wall as it corrodes with age – was relatively minor. The bumps were not in the same area as the spill.
“It’s one of the cleanest lines I’ve ever seen,” said engineer Chris Fox of the State Lands Commission, which oversees pipelines in state waters.
The inspection reports were obtained by The Associated Press through a request for public documents.
A grapple is unlikely to be the culprit in the Amplify case, as the pipeline is much bigger and heavier than the pipeline that failed after being hooked in 1991, said Smith, now an industry consultant. oil and gas.
“It’s much more difficult to move. You need a lot more impact to get it to slide 100 feet, ”he said.