An oil glare spotted off Huntington Beach this weekend served as a powerful reminder of how long it will be for Southern California to untangle the legal, regulatory and environmental impact of a pipeline in October that released an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean became.
A 70-by-30-foot gloss was spotted on Saturday morning that had disappeared when dark fell, authorities said. The U.S. Coast Guard said it was likely a residual leak from the ruptured 17.3-mile pipeline, which has been decommissioned since October 2nd.
Divers preparing for a routine inspection of the damaged pipeline spotted the shine around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said. Underwater, they saw droplets of oil near the damaged section that had been trapped in a material called syntho-glass since the spill. Divers removed the hull and installed a new one.
If Amplify Energy, the Texas-based company that operated the pipeline, was responsible for releasing the oil over the weekend, it could have an impact, said Ted Borrego, an oil and gas attorney with 50 years of industry experience and associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
“If it’s a recurring problem caused by a company, fines are appropriate,” Borrego said in an email, adding that authorities could take other steps depending on the circumstances.
Meanwhile, the wave of lawsuits sparked by the October oil spill continues to grind through the federal judicial system. Amplify has now faced 14 lawsuits filed by businesses, local residents, property owners, and others affected by the spill. Plaintiffs include owners of coastal properties in Laguna Beach, a surf school in Huntington Beach, a Seal Beach bait and fishing shop, and several groups of seafood sales companies.
Several of the 22 law firms involved in the litigation have already urged District Judge David O. Carter to group their lawsuits into one class action. He signaled in a Nov. 9 court file that he will eventually consolidate the cases, but is still wondering when it will.
Carter has ordered a hearing in Santa Ana Federal Court in mid-December, allowing attorneys to lobby to guide the lawsuit. He said he would tend to choose one or more firms with “long-standing” ties to Orange County and Los Angeles, class action litigation experience, and knowledge of bankruptcy and environmental law.
Amy Conway, a spokeswoman for Amplify, did not respond to questions sent via email on Monday and instead provided a link to a two-day-old statement of the Unified Command put in place in response to the spill.
In last month’s court records, an Amplify attorney identified a long list of insurers, including a Houston-based underwriter and 10 Lloyd’s syndicates, that could also bear some legal bills or eventual settlement costs.
Federal investigators believe the major October oil spill was triggered by a ship’s anchor hitting the pipeline during a storm in January, adding to the question of civil liability for the incident.
Last week, federal authorities identified and boarded a second cargo ship, the Beijing container ship, in the port of Long Beach. The Coast Guard said in a statement that the ship was involved in the anchor-towing incident in heavy weather in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on January 25, and has named shipowners Capetanissa of Liberia and operator V-Ships Greece Ltd., as parties of interest to the investigation.
The October oil spill had a significant negative impact on the natural environment, although the estimated amount of oil released was roughly one-fifth of the amount originally reported. UC Davis’ Oiled Wildlife Care Network announced earlier this month that it had recovered 82 dead birds, six dead mammals and dozens of living mammals in the aftermath of the disaster. The dead animals included a bottlenose dolphin, three California sea lions, and a variety of birds: cormorants, coots, pigeons, grebes, and more.
The USC Sea Grant Program reported that on Nov. 8, 5,544 gallons of oil, 13.6 barrels of tar balls and 546,782 pounds of “oil sands and debris” were collected from the southern California coast. Fisheries in the area remain closed, but beaches have reopened and the USC program reported that analysis found that “Air, water and sediment in San Diego and Orange Counties are not a public health concern with short-term exposure from use of water and beaches in the counties ”.
Last week, Amplify withdrew its full annual report, citing the spill as a factor in the decision. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it paid “approximately $ 17.3 million in costs related to remedial efforts related to the incident,” the majority of which was paid by the company Reimbursement to insurance carriers has been made or is expected to be reimbursed.
Stephen Schork, a longtime energy markets analyst and advisor, worries that the rapid divestment of fossil fuel infrastructures like the aging platforms in Southern California has increased the likelihood of oil spills by smaller operators like Amplify that don’t have the resources of international energy corporations to do so Prevent incidents and compensate affected communities as they occur.
“I’m afraid that in the years to come, as we move our investments forward, you can expect to see these cases more frequently,” he said.
Eric Smith, an economics professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said he believed the government had little recourse to Amplify.
“I don’t think the authorities can do much more to reach Amplify,” he said. “Given the financial backlog, you’re a zombie at this point.”
But Schork said it was still imperative that the company do everything in its power to prevent future incidents and that regulators oversee those efforts.
“It is absolutely in the best interests of every producer out there to be as meticulous as possible, and it is up to regulators to make sure that happens,” he said. “They are making sure that this issue is addressed and that remedial action is taken.”
The Times authors, Matthew Ormseth and Richard Winton, contributed to this report.