As California Goes (with oil spills), So Goes the Nation?

Jennifer Rennicks | May 22, 2015 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

Although desirable when speaking about solar energy deployment, or adoption of smart meters, the maxim “As California Goes, So Goes the Nation” is not the aspiration when it comes to offshore oil drilling and its inevitable spills and economic and ecological impacts. On Wednesday a state of emergency was declared in California as an oil spill in Santa Barbara County, now estimated at 105,000 gallons, spoiled the Refugio State Beach coastline. Though the leaking portion of the Plains American Coastal Pipeline, which transports oil drilled offshore from the ExxonMobil Las Flores Canyon processing plant on to refineries elsewhere, was on land, approximately 21,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a storm water drain and then into the ocean, creating an oil slick that is now more than nine miles wide.

The sensitive ecological area – home to 25 marine mammal species and 60 species of sea birds – may be coated with oil for weeks but experts warn it could be years before the full extent of the damage is known. In addition to ecological impacts, there are economic impacts and impacts on quality of life to local residents. Residents and tourists alike are complaining of a foul stench in the air, while the Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches are turning away hundreds of Memorial Day campers and visitors from their closed shores as clean up takes place. From previous experience in the Gulf, we know that even once initial cleanup is considered finished, tar may remain on the beach for years to come.

While this ‘minor’ spill might be called a ‘drop in the bucket’ as compared to an earlier oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 or the much-larger 135 million gallons barrel Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, each of these spills, provide further evidence of 4 truths in offshore oil drilling:

(1) Spills Happen. Every year. According to testimony provided by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, approximately 20,000 oil spills are reported each year in the United States. Even though the oil industry has made technological advancements for decades, the insurmountable intrinsic risk in offshore drilling and the short shrift given to environmental protections mean spills are inevitable.

(2) When these inevitable spills happen, clean up is slow, costly and often relies on outdated methods. While oil companies are quick to deploy workers in haz-mat suits to the affected beaches or place miles of absorbent booms in the water to soak up floating oil, the majority of ‘clean up’ occurs through the actions of tides and time.

(3) Offshore drilling requires risky onshore infrastructure. Time and again we hear that the likelihood of a catastrophic oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon is low. But it’s not just those catastrophic offshore spills that make the total impact of offshore drilling–it’s the risky onshore infrastructure like pipelines and refineries too. Closer to home, an onshore infrastructure tragedy that comes to mind is the Murphy Oil refinery spill in Chalmette, LA in 2005, which spilled approximately one million gallons of oil over 1,700 homes.

(4) The economic impact of many oil spills is mostly local, particularly if its tourism based.

Its the 4th reality that worries me since the Obama Administration has proposed a sale to lease the waters off my home state of South Carolina as well as North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia for oil and gas development. Fortunately, I’m not the only one worried, as Charleston S.C.’s congressional representative Mark Sanford recently announced firm opposition to offshore drilling and exploration for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast joining 18 communities in South Carolina and dozens of others along the Atlantic coast to say no to offshore drilling. If you live in South Carolina, please consider adding your name to this petition asking Gov. Haley protect our coastline from the impacts of drilling.

Whether you live at the beach, visit each year for the annual beach trip with your family (as I do, pictured at left) or earn your livelihood from coastal tourism/fishing, the idea of offshore drilling and spilling is a chilling one, and also carries real and substantial economic impacts. The New York Times sums it up well:

“For this tourism-dependent area, the response has been split between heartfelt environmental concern and fear that outsiders will get the wrong idea and stay away, even though the spill is northwest of Santa Barbara and the city is unaffected.”

In the years to come, I hope the Southeast emulates California’s solar growth and rapid development and deployment of smart grids. But I hope we pass on offshore oil development so our beaches, coastal bays and marine species can stay oil free.

Jennifer Rennicks
Jennifer joined the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in 2006 as federal policy manager and now directs policy and communication efforts of SACE and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action…
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