California pipeline may have been hooked by ship's anchor

An aerial photo shows the closed beach after oil washed up on Huntington Beach, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday, to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Officials investigating one of California’s largest oil spills are looking into whether a ship’s anchor may have struck a pipeline on the ocean floor, causing a major leak of crude into coastal waters and fouling beaches, authorities said Monday.

The head of the company that operates the pipeline said divers have examined more than

8,000 feet of pipe and are focusing on “one area of significant interest.”

An anchor striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said in a news conference.

Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area, Coast Guard officials said.

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.

The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons of heavy crude into the ocean, contaminating the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.

The Orange County district attorney, Todd Spitzer, said he has investigators looking into whether he can bring state charges for the spill. Spitzer said his jurisdiction ends 3 miles offshore.

Spitzer also said Amplify’s divers should not be allowed near the pipeline without an independent authority alongside them.

Two other potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to Eric Laughlin, a spokesperson for the department’s spill prevention office.Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost.

“If the operator had more valves installed on this line, they’d have a much better chance at having the point of failure isolated by now,” said Bill Caram with the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization based in Bellingham, Washington.

Environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.

“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said Monday.

Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.

Amplify operates three oil platforms about 9 miles off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a 16-inch pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to be coming from a rupture in that pipeline about 4 miles from the platform.

In a 2016 spill-response plan submitted to federal regulators, the company said its worst-case spill scenario was based on the assumption of a “full guillotine cut” of the pipeline occurring 3 miles inland from one of its platforms. But an outside consultant concluded that a spill of that size was “very unlikely” at that location because the line is 120 feet deep and beneath a shipping lane where ships do not normally anchor.

The Beta oil field has been owned by at least seven different corporations since it was discovered by Royal Dutch Shell in 1976, records show. A corporate predecessor of Amplify bought the operation in 2012.The Amplify subsidiary known as Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.

The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity. The worker survived. In a separate incident, crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.

In 1999, a 1.8-mile undersea pipeline running between two platforms sprang two leaks totaling at least 3,800 gallons of oil, causing tar balls to wash up on beaches in Orange County.

The cause of of the leaks was determined to be corrosion that caused pin-sized holes in the steel walls of the pipeline. The owner of the oil field at the time, a partnership between Mobil Oil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. called Aera Energy LLC, was fined $48,000 by federal regulators — a penalty environmental groups criticized as a slap on the wrist.

Before the spill, Amplify had high hopes for the Beta oil field and was pouring millions of dollars into upgrades and new “side track” projects that would tap into oil by drilling laterally.

“We have the opportunity to keep going for as long as we want,” Willsher said in an August conference call with investors. He added there was capacity “up to 20,000 barrels a day.”

Investors shared Willsher’s optimism, sending the company’s stock up more than sevenfold since the beginning of the year to $5.75 at the close of trading on Friday. The stock plunged more than 40% in morning trading Monday.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and emerged a few months later. It had been using cash generated by the Beta field and others in Oklahoma and Texas to pay down $235 million in debt.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

(10) comments

Mike Johnson

From the LA Times: "The Coast Guard is investigating whether a large commercial ship set anchor in the wrong location, damaging an oil pipeline and causing the massive Orange County oil spill, an official familiar with the investigation told The Times Monday.

The anchor dragged the pipeline as much as 150 feet, the official said. Vessels are given anchor points in order to avoid pipelines. Coast Guard investigators are examining whether the ship’s captain was aware of the dragging. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity."

Russell Scanlon

No comments from the fossil fuel people about how “safe” the oil industry is?

Mike Johnson

So you think an oil company can prevent a ship from dragging an anchor over its pipeline? The government is supposed to make sure ships anchor in the proper area, sounds like they are at fault here.

Russell Scanlon

Oh yeah, of course the oil companies and their operators have ABSOLUTELY NO RESPONSIBILITY for this catastrophe. It’s all “the gummints” fault.

I swear you folks are like the toddlers caught with their hands in the cookie jar. No responsibility. No remorse. Just BS excuses.

This is just another example of why we have to wean ourselves from fossil fuel. One of many. I’m not saying it’s gonna be easy and your stock options are probably gonna drop. What’s more important to you?

Mike Johnson

So you deny that the ship's anchor caused this spill? It's a simple construct, and if a law suit is filed against the oil company, this investigation will have the case thrown out. But, the incompetent government entity that allowed this ship to possibly anchor in the wrong place, or that the ship's captain set the anchor improperly and it drug across the pipeline causing the spill would be entertained by a court. I guess facts don't matter to partisan political operatives that have their minds made up about who is evil and needs to be blamed, regardless of any facts.

Russell Scanlon

Wow. I’m not going down that rabbit hole with you. When one considers the whole host of toxic problems associated with burning fossil fuels—oil tanker accidents, pipelines breaking, water supplies affected by fracking—not to mention the link to air pollution and global warming, every one of these pipeline disasters is another slap across the face to humanity to take action and pursue alternative energy solutions. I know that the specific liability for these accidents is complicated and that dependence on oil is a responsibility shared among every citizen in the modern world. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are making our planet uninhabitable for our children. The first step is to reclaim our government from the fossil fuel industry and accept the fact that we have do something dramatic and soon.

And this ain’t a problem with “partisan political operatives” BTW . . And I sure as h*ll ain’t any more or less “partisan” than you are!

Mike Johnson

Oh no, you are not more partisan than I, I am a Democratic Capitalist who will fight against socialism and the left wing woke with all my energies. But when you say: "The first step is to reclaim our government from the fossil fuel industry and accept the fact that we have do something dramatic and soon." I have to laugh, as none of that will happen, nada. Get used to it or get over it, those are your choices. Fossil fuels will be around as a dominant source of energy, jobs, and economic prosperity for world economies long after we are all gone. A small oil spill caused by a ship or the government will not change any of that.

Russell Scanlon

Well I expected nothing and that’s what I got. No faith in humanity, no faith in science, no vision that things can ever be better. Utterly stagnant hopelessness.

Mike Johnson

Oh that's not just my opinion, the data and science back up what is happening (or not as the case may be) in the world's energy situation. Consider this from the Wall Street Journal the other day: "In 2019, the latest complete year of data, 81% of the world’s energy supply came from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. Even if all nations were to fulfill their current climate promises in the Paris Accords, the IEA estimates that fossil-fuel use would still make up 73% by 2040."

And this as well: "Coal prices soared to their highest on record as China accelerated a global struggle for resources that has brought the dirtiest fossil fuel roaring back.

High-quality thermal coal loaded on ships at Newcastle port in Australia surged to $203.20 a ton, breaking the previous record set in July 2008. That’s the benchmark price for Asia, the world’s largest market for the fuel by far."

Russell Scanlon

We don’t really need any more confirmation from Murdoch’s WSJ that we are choking on fossil fuels and dying from “small oil spills”.

Have you ever been to China Mike? I have—and it’s the most filthy polluted place I have ever seen—and apparently your vision of the future of your progeny.

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