A new lawsuit points to October’s Huntington Beach oil spill as evidence that federal regulators are failing to protect humpback whales, sea turtles and other endangered animals from oil drilling off the California coast.
The Center for Biological Diversity, in the suit filed Wednesday, Jan. 26, seeks to force the Biden administration to halt all new drilling permits in federal waters offshore of California. It also seeks to throw out a Trump-era analysis, done before the incident, that found no large oils spills were likely.
While no new leases are being issued in the region, companies with existing leases are continuing to drill new wells — which, in turn, are serviced by existing offshore platforms — according to Kristen Monsell, the Center for Biological Diversity’s lead attorney for the suit.
Although the suit, filed in federal court in Pasasdena, doesn’t seek to halt all drilling, it aims to block expansion of existing operations in federal waters, which begin three miles offshore and are host to 23 of California’s 27 platforms.
“This suit is directed at the agencies so they won’t make the problem worse,” Monsell said. “The recent oil spill highlights the ongoing threat offshore oil and gas activity poses, and how our government isn’t doing nearly enough to protect species already struggling to survive, from this dangerous activity.”
The suit alleges that the spill indicates mismanagement of the Environmental Protection Act protections for endangered species.
When the Trump administration explored the possibility of offering new oil leases offshore of California, its analysis was based on the assumption that an oil spill is unlikely and that if it did occur it would be limited to 8,400 gallons, according to the suit.
The Oct. 1 spill resulted in about 25,000 gallons of oil being released into the ocean, leading to a week of beach closures and halting fishing for two months along a 45-mile stretch of coast.
Although no endangered animals were among reported fatalities, 82 birds and six sea mammals were killed by the spill, according to a UC Davis tally.
A ship anchor that caught and dragged a pipeline, possibly months before the leak, was the likely culprit, according to investigators.
Monsell said that while new wells have been drilled in recent years, it’s not clear from federal public records how many.
In 2018, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimated that 10 new wells would be drilled in the region from 2018 through 2023.
The lawsuit faces an uphill battle, according to oil rig consultant John B. Smith, a former official with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees leases in federal waters.
“I think it’s going to get a lot of attention because of the oil spill,” Smith said. “(But) it’s a difficult suit to win, I think. The oil companies have leases, and they have rights associated with them. They would want to preserve their property rights.”
He noted that 15 of the 23 platforms in federal waters offshore of California are currently shuttered, as is one of the four in state waters. Of those 27 platforms, eight or more are not expected to reopen, he said.
Citing the 2018 estimate of 10 new wells opening over a five year span, Smith said new wells “are not going to have a big impact.”
“But with oil prices going up, oil companies may want to open up more operations,” he said.
Monsell said the federal suit was part of an effort to phase out all offshore drilling. And new drilling in state waters?
“We’re looking at various possible approaches,” she said. “We need to get this out of both federal and state waters.”
When asked about the lawsuit, Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline that leaked in October, emphasized that it was not responsible for the spill.
“Had anyone notified Amplify Energy in late January 2021 that there was an anchor drag event in the vicinity of our pipeline, we would have taken immediate action to assess the situation, including the deployment of an ROV to inspect the line,” said an Amplify spokesperson.
The oil trade group America’s Offshore Energy Industry did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
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