Having grown up in Orange County, the shores of Huntington Beach always greet me with a strong sense of nostalgia: Five-year-old me loved getting swept up under the beach’s waves, and high-school me enjoyed shopping and eating along the pier.
On Oct. 2, between 25,000 and 131,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pipeline off the coast of Southern California and turned the Huntington Beach that I remember into a wasteland. A history of carelessness by oil companies stemming from government complicity will continue to spark disastrous economic and environmental consequences unless offshore oil drilling stops.
One similarity links the large 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and the now 2021 Orange County spill — oil companies’ failure to self-regulate. In Santa Barbara, Union Oil failed to implement required safety precautions that would have prevented blowouts, and in the Exxon spill, a broken radar and drunk captain caused an oil tanker collision. Following this trend, even after alarms alerted workers to a potential leak, Southern California operators waited over three hours before shutting off the valve and alerting authorities.
The consequences of the most recent oil spill will last longer and are more damaging than what seemingly quick cleanup efforts would have people believe.
Environmental scientists Andrea Bonisoli Alquati and Ronald Tjeerdema describe the cascading effects of oil spills that stem from dead marine life. The deaths of marine algae, plants and larvae have entirely disrupted California’s coastal food chains. Even when not physically coated, existing oil in the water, air, and food that is absorbed by marine life and birds causes long-term problems like cancer and neurological damage. Loss of plant life may also lead to erosion that collapses small ecosystems along California’s shores. Alongside existing compounding effects from climate change, seismic drilling and pollution, the environment may never fully recover from these spills.
Economically, Orange County businesses and taxpayers will suffer. A Huntington Beach class-action lawsuit claims damages of $5 million from a loss of business after the oil spill. Another lawsuit from fishermen and boat captains alleges massive damages (exact number to be determined in trial) from a loss of sea life that funds fishermen’s businesses. As time goes on, more lawsuits from the government and residents will follow. However, Amplify Energy, the owner of the leaked pipeline, will not pay off all these damages: taxpayers will. Not only was Amplify bankrupt four years ago, taxpayers have also already federally subsidized them to the tune of $20 million because of a lack of profit. Taxpayers subsidizing oil companies after spills is not a recent phenomenon: The federal government subsidized Veneco, which was responsible for the Refugio oil spill in 2015, after they declared bankruptcy twice.
Both state and federal legislators continue to be blindsided, judging from the fact that at any point since the Santa Barbara disaster, they could have stopped these oil spills from happening. California may have stopped issuing new offshore drilling leases beginning in 1969, but permits on existing platforms continue. Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration, even with his campaign platform heavily revolving around the environment, issued five offshore oil drilling permits for drilling on California’s present facilities.
The federal government isn’t doing much better: Earlier this month, concurrent with President Joe Biden’s powerful speeches about climate change disasters during Hurricane Ida, his administration moved to expand offshore drilling by leasing 78 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel exploration. The administration argues it is required by a court order to do so (since the process for the lease was initiated under the previous administration), but many environmental groups argue that the federal government has the authority to cancel it.
The West Coast Ocean Protection Act introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., aims to ban new drilling off the West Coast; however, existing oil leases would remain. The only way to decisively stop oil spills is to end all offshore oil drilling, present and future. If federal and state legislatures do not decommission existing offshore oil rigs, oil spills will continue to cause environmental disaster.
Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He is a stressed freshman looking to work in public policy.