Big oil slick off Santa Barbara County coast sparks new concerns
By Javier Panzar , Joseph Serna, Matt Hamilton, July 29, 2015 10:39pm
That greasy luster returned once again to the waters off Santa Barbara County.
An oil slick that stretched more than 3 miles was spotted Wednesday by some kayakers, about two months after a ruptured pipeline spilled more than 21,000 gallons of crude into the ocean off this picturesque coastline.
The sheen — no thicker than a coat of paint — did not prompt the closure of any beaches, and the U.S. Coast Guard said the oily substance would dissipate on its own.
As Coast Guard investigators awaited lab results that may pinpoint the oil’s source, images of a shiny patch of sea and splotches of tar along these pristine shores sent a quiver of anxiety through a community that’s still recovering from the May 19 spill.
“I just hoped it wasn’t another oil spill,” said Janine Dorn, a substitute teacher who brought her black poodle, Jack, to survey Goleta Beach before sunset. The oil spill in May had her fuming, she said. “Then I see this and it’s incredible. This can’t be happening again.”
Shortly before 11 a.m., the kayakers reported seeing the sheen about 1,000 feet off Goleta Beach, according to the county fire department. A black and brown gooey substance had coated the kayaks and the kayakers’ legs, according to photos from the fire department.
Initially described as measuring 60 feet wide, the sheen by Wednesday evening had stretched 3.5 miles long and half a mile wide, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Schmid said. As tides moved, the oil split into sections and covered only about one-third of the total area, he said.
The patch was seen floating near an oil platform owned by Venoco Inc., but the company denied that its platform was involved. That platform, known as Holly, was shut down in May, a company official said. Its pipeline was flushed of any oil and refilled with seawater.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, said the sheen could have been an ordinary, natural seepage. At Coal Oil Point, a seep field in the Santa Barbara Channel, thousands of gallons of oil flow into the ocean each day, something residents have grown accustomed to.
“The earth burps all the time,” said Robert Hernandez, an electrician who fishes nearly every day off the Goleta pier. “You smell it, you get a little on you. No big deal.”
Hernandez, 60, said he has been fishing along the Central Coast since he was 15. Sheens such as those spotted Wednesday are part of life in a region where the petroleum-rich sea bed regularly emits oil and natural gas, he said, which made him question why it was newsworthy. “It cracks me up,” he said. “At first I thought there was a shark attack or something.”
Yet environmental activist Rebecca Claassen, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said it’s too early to minimize the sheen as a natural occurrence, saying the oil platforms that dot the county’s coastline pose a daily risk. “We can see a spill any day as long as there is drilling off shore,” she said.
Federal officials said Wednesday’s sheen also could be a remnant of this spring’s spill, when the corroded pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline leaked an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude along the Gaviota coast and forced a weeks-long closure of Refugio State Beach.
The director of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Charlton Bonham, said Wednesday that the cleanup of the Refugio spill is ongoing, with about 14,000 gallons of oily water removed from the ocean.
Cleanup crews have responded to reports of tar balls as far away as Orange County, and one tar ball recovered in Manhattan Beach had the same oil “DNA” as the oil spilled at Refugio, he said.
Appearing in Sacramento before the state Ocean Protection Council, Bonham said the natural seepage in the area is challenging how his agency assesses the effectiveness of recovery efforts. “What is clean?” he told the panel. “How clean is clean?”
As federal and state investigators await the results of laboratory tests from Wednesday’s incident, Santa Barbara County’s director of public health, Dr. Takashi Wada, said there is no immediate risk to swimmers, and the county’s beaches and fishing piers remain open.
After swimming in the water off Goleta Beach with her friend, Anya Schmitz, 16, opined that the water was crystal clear — perfect for a summer dip.
“Conditions are great,” she said. “Seems like a lot of hype to me.”
Panzar reported from Goleta; Serna and Hamilton from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Phil Willon in Sacramento contributed to this report.
Repost from CNN [Editor: One of the best reports I’ve seen. The video has spokespeople for environmental concerns and footage of protests. Unfortunately, CNN does not permit embedding – you will need to go to CNN and watch the commercial first. Grrr. – RS]
Santa Barbara oil spill: Authorities, environmentalists step up response
By Michael Martinez, Sara Sidner, and Faith Karimi, CNN, May 23, 2015
Santa Barbara, California (CNN) – Authorities have intensified their response to this week’s Santa Barbara oil spill by announcing remedies and additional investigations.
The California attorney general’s office is working with local prosecutors as well as state and federal agencies in investigating Tuesday’s spill that prompted a state-issued emergency in Santa Barbara County and the closing of two state beaches until June 4.
“California’s coastline is one of the state’s most precious natural treasures. This oil spill has scarred the scenic Santa Barbara coast, natural habitats and wildlife. My office is working closely with our state and federal partners on an investigation of this conduct to ensure we hold responsible parties accountable,” Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said.
The cause of the oil spill remains under investigation.
Oil company’s response
The oil firm, Plains All American Pipeline, has been actively participating in the cleanup and daily press conferences with federal and state officials.
“Our goal is zero (spills),” senior director Patrick Hodgins of Plains All American told reporters Friday. “Are we happy with this unfortunate event? Absolutely not.
“We’re going to be here until it is taken care of,” Hodgins added.
In a general statement Friday, the firm said it had “significantly increased” the size and spending of its safety program since 2008. The firm added that “releases from Plains pipelines have significantly decreased while throughput volume has increased since 2008.”
The firm had taken measures that “exceeded the federal regulatory requirement” for the Santa Barbara pipeline that eventually ruptured this week, and had inspected it two times in the past three years.
In fact, the pipeline was examined May 5, and investigators will be reviewing those results, officials said.
The coastal town of Goleta on Friday declared its own state of emergency, citing the spill as an “extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.”
Progress so far
As the cleanup entered its fourth day on Friday, vessels were “actually doing pretty well” recovering oil from the ocean, but “the harder part” will be cleaning the land — the shoreline, the beaches, the cliffs and the hillside near U.S. Highway 101 where the pipe ruptured, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams.
“It could take months,” she said.
Officials provided a tally Friday of the cleanup and environmental damage:
• 10,000 gallons of oily water removed from the ocean;
• 91 cubic yards of oily solids and 800 cubic yards of oily soil removed from beaches;
• 9.5 square miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline affected, from Arroyo Hondo beach to Refugio State Beach, near Goleta.
• Three brown pelicans were killed. Six more brown pelicans, two California sea lions and an elephant seal are being rehabilitated after oil coated them. A common dolphin was found dead without oil on its exterior, but it will be examined for signs of ingested oil.
On Friday, environmentalists declared the spill “a wake-up call” on continued oil development. They urged state and federal politicians to refuse additional oil projects, especially in Santa Barbara County, and called upon the nation to usher in a “post-oil era” by embracing renewable energy.
The activists noted that a 1969 spill in Santa Barbara was so catastrophic it ignited the environmental movement and a host of federal and state laws to protect the natural world.
The onshore pipeline behind this week’s Santa Barbara oil spill leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude on coastal lands and into the ocean, the oil company said.
At its worst, the smell burns your nostrils and gives you a little nagging headache.
Stones at Refugio State Beach lay splattered with a jet black tar, like goo, which can only be crude oil.
An industrial-size trash bin of oily vegetation sits next to the beach. Bikinis and surfboards on once pristine sandy shores have been replaced with people in hazmat suits, digging in the dirt and picking up oil-laden sticks and plants.
Among the worst violators
The underground oil pipeline was carrying 1,300 barrels an hour, below its maximum capacity of 2,000 barrels an hour, said Rick McMichael of Plains All American Pipeline.
Plains All American is among the worst violators listed by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration.
It surpassed all but four of more than 1,700 operators in safety and maintenance infractions, the federal agency said.
Hodgins suggested the comparison wasn’t fair because “we’re also much larger than those companies that we were compared to.”
“Most of the companies that we’re compared to have half the amount of pipelines” that Plains All American has, Hodgins said Friday. “So therefore, with double the number of miles of pipelines, unfortunately incidents have occurred, (and) the larger and the more of those can be realized.”
Most of the spills were caused by pipe corrosion, the EPA said.
The oil company agreed to pay a $3.25 million civil penalty and spend $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles (16,770 kilometers) of crude oil pipeline operated in the United States, the EPA said in 2010.
Lobsters killed, pelicans soaked in oil
Meanwhile, crews continued to clean beaches and coastal waters, and officials reported the leak killed an undisclosed number of lobsters, kelp bass and marine invertebrates. Six oil-soaked pelicans and one young sea lion were being rehabilitated.
As of Thursday night, vessels had skimmed 9,500 gallons of oily water from the ocean, McMichael said.
The cleanup could last months, officials said. For now, currents, tides and winds make the oil plume “a moving target” as it drifts offshore, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams.
Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline estimated up to 105,000 gallons may have spilled from a broken pipe, based on the typical flow rate of oil and the elevation of the pipeline.
Since the pipeline is underground, it will take a few days to determine how much crude oil was spilled, said McMichael, who estimated 21,000 gallons of crude had gone into the Pacific Ocean, with the rest spilled on land.
Not the first time
A spill in January 1969 became what was, at the time, the nation’s worst offshore oil disaster. Though this week’s spill is smaller, it still prompted California’s governor to declare a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.
The 1969 disaster was so catastrophic that it gave birth to an environmental movement, a host of regulations against the oil and gas industry, and a new commission to protect California’s coast, experts said.
Subsequent U.S. oil spills were much larger, including the Exxon Valdez accident, which dumped 11 million gallons off Alaska’s shores in 1989, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, which put 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
But the 1969 Santa Barbara spill energized a movement that led to new federal and state environmental laws and helped establish the first Earth Day the next year.
The environment remains a major concern around Refugio State Beach, which was desolate Thursday, as were its campgrounds, which are normally packed for Memorial Day weekend. The only sounds were the waves and the helicopter above, a buzzing reminder of the oily mess below.
By Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky, May 21, 2015 10:40pm
GOLETA, Santa Barbara County — The scene along the Santa Barbara County coast was horrific: An oil slick 6 inches deep blackened 800 square miles of seawater, 3,500 birds were dead, and 100 dead elephant seals and sea lions were found on a San Miguel Island beach.
It was 1969.
When oil spilled again this week, the outcome — and duration — was much different, largely because that man-made disaster 46 years ago changed everything, prompting the first Earth Day and giving rise to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Coastal Commission and the landmark California Environmental Quality Act.
Still, it reopened wounds left from that unprecedented disaster.
“I’ve just been thrust back almost 50 years,” said Robert Sollen, 93, a former award-winning reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press, referring to his coverage of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The deep water blowout of a Union Oil rig had spilled an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean over 11 days, but the oil giant downplayed the incident.
Fred Hartley, the president of Union Oil, refused to call it a disaster because human lives were not lost. “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds,” he said in 1969.
This week’s spill dumped as much as 105,000 gallons of crude oil over several hours out of an onshore pipe owned by Plains All-American Pipeline. The oil flowed into the water through a culvert, prompting an immediate and enormous unified response under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
State of emergency
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County as nearly 300 state and federal emergency workers and scientists raked oil off Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach. Five pelicans and a sea lion were rescued and were being treated.
“There will be serious repercussions and people demanding how this could happen,” Sollen said as a shiny opaque ring of oil collected on the beaches and along the surrounding cliffs at the high tide mark. “After 50 years, that’s as it should be.”
The situation is a reminder to Sollen and many other locals who witnessed the 1969 oil spill of how vulnerable Santa Barbara County is to disaster.
The Santa Barbara Channel sits on a thick block of sedimentary rock that holds down vast quantities of oil. There is so much oil, in fact, that it sometimes seeps naturally from the sea floor.
The area is consequently a highly valuable resource for the petroleum industry. In fact, the first offshore oil drilling in the world was built in 1896 off the southern coast of Santa Barbara County, just 6 miles from the site of the catastrophic spill 73 years later.
There was anger even then as ugly oil platforms and pollution began to spoil the dramatic natural scenery and unspoiled beaches. Vigilantes, led by a local newspaper publisher named Reginald Fernald, actually tore down an oil rig at Miramar Beach.
“The protests started in the late 1890s,” said Sollen, who wrote a book called “Ocean of Oil” about the oil boom in the area. “Of course they polluted like crazy, but there were no regulations in effect at that time.”
The horror to come
The oil boom continued despite public opposition and numerous small oil spills, including one in 1968 that dumped 2,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast, inflaming local opposition. Sollen said locals had long predicted and he had written about the potential for a large spill, but he was not prepared for the horror that he would soon witness.
At 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1969, pressurized natural gas and oil exploded out of a 3,500-foot-deep well as Union Oil attempted to extract a drilling pipe at a platform called Alpha.
‘It was in your face’
“It was the first of its kind on that scale, and it was in your face,” said Keith Clarke, a geography professor at UC Santa Barbara, who wrote a retrospective on the disaster in 2002 for a scientific convention. “There was no way to avoid it. It was right in front of a resort town.”
The dismissive statement from the Union Oil president and subsequent revelations that the oil company had gotten a waiver from the federal government allowing them not to use casing designed to prevent such a blowout prompted a national movement and inspired wholesale changes in policy and law.
“People stood there and cried,” said Bud Bottoms, an 87-year-old artist, activist and author who helped found a group called Get Oil Out, or GOO. “There was no sound. There were no waves. It was just flat with about 2 or 3 inches of oil coming to shore.”
Fired up the activists
GOO collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to ban offshore drilling and organized a campaign to send flasks of spilled oil to politicians. Local activists also formed a group called the Environmental Defense Center.
“People were so fueled up,” Bottoms said from his Santa Barbara living room. “We marched to the wharf that had been leased by the oil company and blocked the trucks from coming onto the dock. From there we started the publicity fight.”
A subsequent ballot initiative created the California Coastal Commission to regulate coastal areas. The California Environmental Quality Act soon followed, forcing developers and other land users to consider environmental impacts.
President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, mandating scrutiny of all federal projects, including drilling platforms and offshore oil leases, for environmental impacts before approval. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was formed.
First Earth Day
The Santa Barbara spill inspired then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to organize Earth Day, an annual celebration of the world ecosystem that continues to this day. The State Land Commission halted offshore drilling after the spill, but Ronald Reagan lifted the ban years later when he was president.
Despite all this, rows of drilling platforms can still be seen off Highway 101 between Ventura and Santa Barbara, features of the landscape that many locals still call “Reagan’s Christmas trees.”
The platforms, and the oil glut they represent, are a sign to many locals that oil drilling is not likely to cease anytime soon.
“The bottom line is that in spite of it all, we really only pay attention to this when there are large leaks and they occur in beautiful places,” Clarke said. “There is always a level of protection that we need that we don’t seem to be able to put in place. Meanwhile, oil and water still don’t mix.”
Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.
Phillips 66 Runs into Public Resistance over Proposal to Lay New Tracks and Unload More Canadian Crude
By Natalie Cherot, January 23, 2015
A slow-moving pipeline moves a haul of crude oil to a refinery just north of the Santa Barbara County border. Stand on the nearby coast’s 18,000-year-old sand dunes and look away from the sea, and a perfect view emerges of the expansive Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery. The name is a misnomer. The San Luis Obispo facility on the Nipomo Mesa is 17 miles northwest from the City of Santa Maria. Directly south is the Santa Maria River.
Golden Sierra Madre mountains shimmer in the distance, and hearty sage scrub surrounds its perimeter alongside grazing cattle. The night sky around the facility is never dark; its aquarium lights border on festive. The illumination is necessary because the refinery is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It begins the process of turning crude into a finished product like gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel, and pumps the semi-refined batches 200 miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area plants for finishing.
With oil prices dropping and California supplies both dwindling and facing harsh competition from North Dakota, much speculation swirls on the question of what kind of oil will arrive to the refinery on the dunes in the coming years. Right now it is “mostly used for California-produced oil,” said Phillips 66 spokesperson Rich Johnson.
But as of 2013, Phillips 66’s newest product is Canadian tar sands, a thick, gooey combination of clay, sand, water, and viscous bitumen. It’s hard to control and expensive to process. The Kearl Lake tar sands field cuts through Alberta’s boreal forest and wetlands, and has been turned into a mined landscape. An estimated 170 billion more barrels are still available for the taking.
In the summer of 2013, Phillips 66 submitted permit applications to San Luis Obispo County’s Planning Commission to add 1.3 miles of train track to its Santa Maria Refinery’s existing rail spur so crude can be delivered by train rather than by pipe. The proposed upgrades, which include five parallel tracks, an unloading facility, and new on-site pipelines, wouldn’t increase the amount of crude processed at the facility — volume is capped by the county’s Air Pollution Control District — but they reflect an increasing amount of oil train traffic across the country. BusinessWeek.com reported that it’s tripled in the last four years.
According to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the facility would be able to handle five train unloads a week for a maximum of 250 a year. Each train with about 80 tanks on board would carry between 1.8 million and 2.1 million gallons of crude.
A first draft of the EIR — which indicated that both Canadian tar sands and North Dakota Bakken formation crude would be carried on the trains — was published that fall and received 800 public comments. The massive amount of feedback, much of it negative, prompted the Planning Commission to delay a final decision on the project. The commission issued a second 889-page draft EIR in October 2014, and a few weeks from now, a public comment period will take place. The date has not been finalized.
The biggest contention in the first draft was about Bakken crude. “The bottom line is Bakken Crude likes to burn and it will not take much to get it going,” wrote Paul Lee, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning and Building Department. For preparation of the second draft EIR, Phillips 66 requested the county “delete statements suggesting that the Bakken oilfield as the most likely source of crude oil.” The new draft EIR states no Bakken will arrive by rail. Phillips’s spokesperson Rich Johnson said the refinery can’t handle the sweeter, lighter Bakken crude, as it specializes in the ultra-heavy tar sands.
Four accidents involving Bakken crude are mentioned in the latest report. A 30,000-barrel spill occurred in April 2014 in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a transport train derailed and erupted into flames. In November 2013, a train jumped the tracks in Aliceville, Alabama. Twelve tanker cars of Bakken spilled and caught fire. The next month, another oil train crashed in Casselton, North Dakota, where 20 cars of Bakken exploded and burned for 24 hours. Forty-seven people died when a train carrying the crude derailed and exploded in Quebec on July 2013.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a warning to move transportation of Bakken oil away from highly populated areas because of explosion risks. “Most think that Crude will not get going unless it gets warmed up first and in some cases that is correct, [but] Bakken Crude does not need to be aggravated to burn or even explode,” wrote Lee. “The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is concerned about its ability to explode so much in fact that there is a recommendation to have rail avoid populated areas.”
Phillips 66’s rail expansion plan is part of larger national strategy to better accommodate tar sands coming out of the ground quicker than the current system of pipelines can handle. “Our real challenge that we have, or opportunity that we have, is to get advantaged crudes to the East Coast and West Coast,” said Greg Garland, chairman and CEO of Phillips 66, at the Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference last year. “So we’re working that in terms of moving Canadian crudes down into California or building rail facilities.”
Two thousands miles north in Alberta, Canada, the contentious Keystone XL pipeline would transport tar sands through Montana, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Houston. The pipeline’s foes claim the fuel is too emission-intensive and corrosive to pipelines. Supporters say if the Keystone XL is blocked, tar sands will come by the more dangerous transportation methods of boat or rail. Recent Philips 66 literature states: “Until new pipeline projects come online, rail is in many cases the easiest and most cost efficient way to get advantaged crude to some of our refineries.”
Trains coming and going from Santa Maria Refinery would travel the path of the Union Pacific Rail, on tracks shared by Amtrak. They would make the journey north through the Nipomo Mesa, up the precarious Cuesta Grade through Paso Robles, Salinas, and San Jose. Then they head through Richmond, then Berkeley. Richmond and Berkeley city councils recently passed resolutions calling for stricter regulations on crude oil trains.
The paths of the trains coming from the south — and carrying crude from any number of sources — are unclear and not ironed out in the draft EIR, but they would likely go through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A potential path indicated in the report heads through downtown Moorpark at the eastern edge of Ventura County after it passes through Simi Valley, but that potential route may have hit a glitch.
On December 17, the Moorpark City Council voted to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission opposing Phillip 66’s proposal because of its potentially hazardous risks. “I feel strongly that we need to show a little bit of leadership here as a city to formally object to this,” said one councilmember. “Hopefully other cities along this track will as well.” According to the report, once the trains leave Moorpark they could head through Camarillo to Ventura and along the coast to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Goleta.
Johnson does not see much long-term job growth — or even stability — at the refinery given its current pipeline setup and a recent dip in statewide supplies. To stay competitive, company officials have argued, the refinery needs to revamp its intake methods so it can accept crude from other sources. “We are trying to keep the jobs we have,” Johnson said of the 200 people working at the plant. “Oil production in California is on the decline.” Rumors of a too-twisted and warped Monterey Shale formation from years of tectonic activity became a public reality in May when the government agency, Energy Information Administration, downgraded a predicted 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil to 600 million.