Notes From Underground: A Spill of Opportunity

By Adam Arnold

Inevitability Returns to Southern California 

pipeline rupture off the coast of Southern California was detected on the evening of Friday, October 1 and led to over 100,000 gallons of oil being released into the environment before owner Amplify Energy closed off the pipeline the next day. 

The spill has indeed amplified calls to end offshore drilling and reduce petroleum dependence. Pipelines inevitably leak, and leaked oil inevitably harms wildlife, human health, and the economy. We cannot afford to accept this harm as “normal.”  

Here We Go Again 

This is not the first spill to impact the area; an even larger spill in 1990 caused significant long term harm. As with that spill, we can expect predictions of long-term impacts from the current spill to prove accurate. 

Another aspect of the Amplify spill that feels familiar is the changing estimate of the spill’s size. What was first reported as around a 126,000-gallon (3000 barrels) spill ticked up to 130,000 gallons, then 144,000, within a few days. 

Changing estimates are the norm, and this is somewhat understandable: determining precise amounts of oil flowing into the sea (or underground, in some instances) is bound to involve some guesswork. But the consistency with which petroleum companies underestimate spill quantities strains the limit of “plausible deniability” – in an industry for which denial is already standard operating procedure. 

Dispersants Could Amplify the Problem 

The mechanical recovery of nearly 5000 gallons of oil was reported three days after the leak was closed – roughly 3% of the spilled oil (based on the 144,000-gallon estimate). When efforts to recover the spilled oil using booms conclude, thousands of gallons of oil will remain in the environment. This is a terrible outcome, but worse still would be to hide the remaining oil using chemical dispersants that not only increase the toxicity of the oil, but also to sink the oil to the seabed, where its impacts can linger for years. It is unclear whether dispersants are being employed for this spill, but it is hoped that they are not and will not be. 

Government Accountability Project has spent over a decade interviewing witnesses along the Gulf Coast regarding the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster (see our three reports here). The impacts of that spill have been catastrophic due in large part to the use of chemical dispersants. One lesson we should have learned from that tragedy is that dispersant use must be carefully scrutinized. 

Renewed Scrutiny for Chemical Dispersants 

district court decision in July compelled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise its National Contingency Plan (NCP) for oil-spill response, which has not been updated since 1994. A 2015 rule was left unfinished by the Obama administration, only to be ignored by the Trump administration. Faced with the option of finalizing the 2015 rule as written or completing a new rule, EPA is poised to take the easy way out. 

Government Accountability Project agrees with the plaintiffs in the case and the communities they represent: revisiting the rulemaking process would allow research and experience from the last six years to be considered and could better reflect the current understanding of the need to rein in the industry. The court set a date in May of 2023 to finalize a rule, allowing plenty of time to take public comments and generate a plan for the future. 

Given the necessity of phasing out fossil fuel reliance, allowing oil companies to control the cleanup process and the narrative (as the current NCP does) would be worse than inaction. It would be a step backward, reaffirming the power of the industry rather than confronting it. 

The Amplify Energy spill is a true “spill of opportunity,” a term used to describe the usually unmet need to learn from each new spill through intensive research. In this instance, the opportunity is to point to the harm caused by an industry built around false narratives –“necessity” chief among them – to compel the creation of a more effective NCP, on the path to reducing reliance on dirty energy and its inevitable harmful impacts. 

Wikipedia lists over a dozen US spills larger than the Amplify spill since the 2010 BP disaster. This number excludes listed spills of unknown quantities, and spills that were not detected, not announced, or underestimated – as well as numerous smaller spills, many more of which go unreported. In the wake of Hurricane Ida, which hit the Gulf Coast in late August of this year, nearly 350 spills of various sizes were reported. If we rely on fossil fuels, spills come with the territory.

But inevitability should not mean acceptance. The fossil fuel industry demands exposure and scrutiny – or the infection will not be eliminated, only dispersed.