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Oil Spills: Turning Green to Black

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Although technological advances have helped prevent many man-caused environmental disasters such as oil spills, they are inevitable as long as the consumption of oil continues. Dead fish and birds covered in black tar — oil — brush up on shore as people are taking a walk along Huntington Beach, California on Oct. 2.

The mayor of Huntington Beach, Kim Carr, told a news conference that an estimated 126,000 gallons, or 3,000 barrels, of oil, was spilled covering about 13 square miles of the Pacific Ocean since it was first reported on Oct. 2.

Carr added, “Our wetlands are being degraded and portions of our coastline are now covered in oil.”

The cause of the spill was a breach connected to the Elly oil rig. The spill stretched from Huntington Beach Pier down to Newport Beach, an area popular with surfers and sunbathers.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has warned and ordered a closure for the fishery in the coastal areas affected by the spill. The department later added that the closure will extend from Huntington Beach to Dana Point and extend up to six miles off of coastal areas for the offshore area.

Carr said the oil rig was operated by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach-based subsidiary of Amplify Energy. It is one of the largest oil producers in Southern California, according to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. The company has three offshore oil platforms in the waters, just 12 miles south of Long Beach.

One of the platforms is Elly, which was installed in 1980 about 9 miles off the coast. It processes crude oil from its two other platforms, Ellen and Eureka. Eureka is in about 700 feet of water, 9 miles southwest of Huntington Beach.

The transport of the oil from these platforms is connected by pipeline. The San Pedro Bay pipeline stretches for 17.3 miles both onshore and offshore from Platform Ella to a pumping station in Long Beach. The first 11 miles of the pipeline starting from Platform Elly lies on the bottom of the ocean. The rest of the offshore pipeline is buried 10 to 15 feet below the ocean floor and extends to an area near the Queen Mary. Oil and gas produced from Platform Ellen, also known as the drilling and production platform, is sent to Elly for refinement, according to Beta's offshore operation plan.

As the spill is an “environmental catastrophe” and a “potential ecological disaster,” according to Carr, many efforts have been put in to help with the clean-up process.

U.S. Representative Michelle Steel, a Republican representing the affected area, sent a letter to Democratic President Joe Biden to declare a disaster in Orange County that would free up federal funds to help with the clean-up.

Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democratic state assembly member representing some of the affected areas, told CNN, the spill was a “call to action that we need to stop drilling off our precious California coast.”

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According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), the number of large spills, as well as the quantity of oil spilled, have decreased significantly over the past few decades. The yearly average of oil spills recorded in 2010 was 1.8 spills which was a tenth of the oil spills in the 1970s. Similarly, approximately 164,000 tonnes of oil spilled in the 2010s which was a 95% reduction since the 1970s.

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Although the number and quantity of oil spills have been reduced, it doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. Oil production off California’s coast has declined since its peak in the 1990s due to the state’s strict environmental rules. Offshore drilling was restricted in the state after a disastrous oil spill in 1965 off Santa Barbara that dumped 80,000 barrels of oil into the ocean.

In the morning of January 28, 1969, the workers were drilling the fifth well located about six miles from the coast that was operated by Union Oil at the time. The back pressure overwhelmed the well’s safety systems which allowed crude oil and natural gas to be trapped thousands of feet down to shoot up toward the surface, Douglas McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told NPR.

“They had capped off the blowout successfully,” McCauley said. “But they created so much pressure at the bottom of this well that it actually broke open the seabed.”

The disaster could have been prevented in the first place if it was not for Union Oil to receive a waiver from the government to drill without installing steel casing pipe to the depth usually required by federal regulations. The tremendous pressure opened five separate gashes in the soft sandstone seabed. Gas bubbled near Platform A that caused the water to boil and oil from underwater began to form a slick that would grow to cover an area nearly the size of Chicago.

After detecting urgency in this issue, President Richard Nixon paid a visit to survey the damage in a helicopter. He visited an oil-soaked beach near Santa Barbara Harbor and spent his time “walking around gingerly” to avoid stepping on sticky black blobs of oil.

The oil spill killed thousands of birds and an unknown number of sea mammals. Hundreds of birds covered in oil that were still alive were taken to a nearby zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo.

“At the time there was really no place or process to care for the oiled wildlife that was showing up on the beaches,” Nancy McToldridge, the zoo’s director, told NPR. “So the zoo closed its doors and concentrated its time and energy into taking in these oiled birds, treating them and then rehabbing them back out into the wild.”

Since then, environmental activism began to grow in the U.S. as this tragic event has opened eyes for many how fragile our planet is. The first Earth Day took place a year later in April 1970 as well as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Several key environmental laws have been passed such as Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

It seems like we still have not learned our lessons from previous oil spills. How much more can our planet handle our mistakes before it decides to give up on us? Only the future has the answer to this question and we hope that it is generous enough to give us one more chance.

© 2022 Liz Fe

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