Competent regulation could have prevented Huntington Beach oil fiasco – Mother Jones

Brown pelicans wait to be cleaned up at an animal rescue facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, following the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.Robin Loznak / Zuma

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Oil from the Huntington Beach spill continues to contaminate the Pacific Ocean off Southern California, disrupting delicate ecosystems that are home to rare marine life and bird species, and causing damage that is expected to last for decades.

An estimated 144,000 gallons of oil gushed into the sea over the weekend before Amplify Energy Corp., owner of the ruptured pipeline, shut it down after more than three hours of delay. NPR reports that the company then waited three more hours before reporting the spill, further delaying action. As agencies sort through the mess, eyes have also turned to the Coast Guard, questioning its role in a slow response that may have made matters worse.

Whoever shares the immediate blame, it was the systemic under-regulation that set the stage for the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responds to more than 150 oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters each year. But earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office report warned that the Federal Office of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, responsible for overseeing the construction and monitoring of offshore oil wells, was not monitoring and n ‘was not properly inspecting active pipelines.

Rather than doing inspections, according to the report, BSEE instead relied on pressure sensors operated by the companies themselves and monthly “surface observations” that were also monitored by the pipeline companies.

“What you would like to see is that [BSEE] would inspect a company’s practices regarding how it maintains and inspects its pipelines for possible damage, ”noted Frank Rusco, director of GAO’s natural resources and environment team, who wrote the report . Otherwise, “we have no record of when this does not happen.”

The report focuses on about 8,600 miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines along the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, but the problem is much broader. Since the 1940s, the oil and gas industry has laid 40,000 miles of offshore pipeline, a vast network which, despite its age, has been allowed to operate with little government oversight.

“The agency that is supposed to ensure environmental protection is asleep at the wheel,” said Miyoko Sakashita, consultant and director of oceans at the Center for Biological Diversity. “And they don’t do a proper inspection or make sure the pipeline is safe.”

This is particularly problematic given that much of the pipeline system was installed in the 1960s and 1970s. As they age, pipelines become more vulnerable to corrosion, mudslides and erosion. the seabed, all of which can lead to leaks and sometimes major spills. Older pipes are also vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, which can drag them along the ocean floor for miles, damaging habitat and creating other hazards.

While the government’s failure to inspect is problematic enough, GAO has found that pipeline oversight is limited from start to finish. “They will approve the construction of a pipeline according to specific standards,” says Rusco. “But generally, they won’t go and inspect while things are being built to make sure they’re built to those standards.”

There is also lax oversight at the end of a pipeline’s life cycle. While regulations mandate the removal of unused pipes, Rusco told me, this is costly, so companies often seek to “decommission” pipes instead, plugging them up and leaving them at the bottom of the tunnel. ocean. Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has approved the decommissioning of 18,000 miles of pipeline, or 97% of all inactive lines.

“The BSEE had basically approved the dismantling of pipelines, almost by default, although that was meant to be an exception to their practice, which was meant to be, when you’re dealing with a pipeline, you have to take it out,” Rusco says.

In theory, all decommissioned lines must be emptied of oil and gas and then buried. But this aspect is also not monitored, notes the report: the agency “does not guarantee that standards, such as cleaning and burial, are met.”

Old pipelines that sit on the ocean floor move over time, Rusco adds, putting pressure on the pipes and causing leaks. While some studies have suggested that the environmental cost of disposing of used pipeline infrastructure is greater than the risk of leaving it alone, advocates say this would likely not be the case if strong precautions were taken to protect the environment. marine life.

“It looks like it would be a greener thing than having a seabed with old oil and pipes,” says Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think some of the studies may not look at the picture of larger environmental impacts to leave them in place.”

“I mean, it’s hard to go and inspect them regularly, which probably means they shouldn’t be there in the first place,” she says.

The BSEE also does not monitor the condition or movements of the decommissioned pipeline, Rusco says. When deterioration of pipes causes a leak and poses a risk to the safety of animals and ecosystems, according to the GAO report, “there is no clear source of funding for their disposal.”

GAO ranks pipeline oversight as a priority issue, citing a general lack of adequate offshore drilling rules and regulations and BSEE’s “limited progress” despite its stated goal, in 2013, to update the BSEE. pipeline regulations. In September, after the report was released, the agency announced it would release updated regulations in 2022, long after recognizing they needed an overhaul. He also said he would review the downgrade rules.

More than a decade after the gruesome spectacle and devastation of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill sparked promises of better regulation, the current crisis in Southern California highlights the dangers of having a toothless watchdog guarding an accident-prone multibillion dollar industry.

“It stems from a history of government acting as customer service for the oil industry,” Sakashita told me. “Regulations only work to allow businesses to continue operating as usual. “

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