As California suffers from the fifth year of the worst drought in 1200 years, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency after a faulty oil pipeline spilled a minimum of 105,000 gallons of the crude on a pristine beach north of Santa Barbara. The black sludge was pouring through the pipeline at 84,000 gallons an hour before the 24-inch pipeline diverted the oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours.
The disaster, barely a week after the Obama Administration gave conditional approval for drilling the Arctic Ocean, caused closure of local fisheries and local beaches as well as killing wildlife before moving out into the ocean. There, the oil badly damages vulnerable creatures such as mussels, barnacles and other shellfish that cannot leave the area because they are connected to the seafloor and rocks. The oil seeking into the sediment, reefs, and beaches will smother organisms in a formerly pristine eco-system and can never be cleaned out.
The owner has been issued 176 safety and maintenance infractions for the Plains All American Pipeline in the past nine years, more than three times the national average. County officials require that all pipelines have an automatic shutdown valve, but a 1988 court ruling allowed the pipeline’s former owners to not use one because it could trigger false alarms. The company’s infractions of pump failure, equipment malfunction, pipeline corrosion, and operator error has spilled more than 864,300 gallons of hazardous liquid and caused over $32 million in property damage. Corrosion was determined the cause in roughly 90 of those accidents, and failures in materials, welds and other equipment were cited more than 80 times.
Offshore oil production is prohibited in California waters since 1969, but the state waters end at three nautical miles offshore. Beyond that boundary, oil drilling is extensive as shown by the green boxes on the map.
With almost 18,000 miles of pipe networks in several states, the Plains reported $43 billion in revenue last year and $878 million in profit last year. Of the over 1,700 pipeline operators, only four companies reported more infractions than Plains Pipeline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued Plains in 2010 over a series of 10 oil spills in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Accused of spilling 273,420 gallons of crude oil, some of it into rivers. the company firm agreed to $3.25 million in fines and $41 million to upgrade its pipelines. Last year, a Plains pipeline sprayed about 10,000 gallons of oil over businesses in Atwater Village, an L.A. neighborhood.
Because the pipeline lacked any automatic shutdown valve, the disaster wasn’t discovered until a woman walking on the beach reported the smell of oil. No one knew how long the pipeline had been leaking, and the pipeline wasn’t shut down for another three hours. Santa Barbara is the site of the third-worst U.S. oil spills in January 1969 that led to then-President Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. He established the Environmental Protection Agency the next year and oversaw the passage of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. It was the 1969 oil disaster that led to Earth Day.
Although most photos of the cleanup show workers in protective gear, people living nearby started the process because of the delay in sending anyone to clean up the beach. Photos of the damage are available here. Warning: they will literally sicken you.
Last year, Louisiana GOP Reps. Vance McAllister and John Fleming recommended repairing oil pipelines with plastic garbage sacks and duct tape. In a House Subcommittee hearing, McAllister, who had worked in the oil industry, described the repair as “innovative.” He praised the person for using “Glad, not those crappy off-brand garbage bags.” McAllister was not long for the House of Representatives because he was caught having an affair with a staffer, the wife of his friend. Fleming is still in the House, most recently voting to prevent abortions for fetuses who will not have a planet in adulthood.
While oil destroys life near Santa Barbara, other part of the fossil fuel industry is taking and contaminating the little water left in the drought-ridden state of California. Although the water-intensive fracking process doesn’t use as much water as agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state’s supply, the highly-toxic wastewater from fracking may be leaching into the state’s aquifers and destroying the little drinking water remaining.
Chevron is making money off this wastewater by selling the toxic fluid back to farmers, putting industrial solvents and other chemicals into the crops. California now has a law mandating water testing for fracking chemicals, but the corporations have oversight. Independent testing of recycled irrigation water has uncovered large quantities of acetone and methylene chloride, both toxic to humans. Spilling these chemicals into the water would shut down gas stations, but corporations have no penalties. Chemicals in the water also permanently damages the soil. Rain water would filter out the salts, but the drought may get worse.
With two emergency situations—the drought and now the oil spill—California is facing a third. The increased number of fires thus far this year will only grow by June, and August will see even more severe conflagrations. Rains before April were short and limited, and the rains stop in April. Dry plants such as chaparral and eucalyptus literally explode, and the state suppression of fires has made conditions worse from the buildup of tinder. Heavy population in the state forces California to fight fires rather than let them burn their natural course.
The one GOP presidential candidate in the current race, Carly Fiorina, blames the environmentalists for the drought for “failing to create any new canals or waterways in decades.” Conservatives refuse to recognize the consequences of climate change, the loss of underground aquifers, and the destructive results of the greedy oil industry corporations.
Anyone who thinks that the problems of water and oil are only California issues are wrong. Forty million people depend on the Colorado River for drinking water. Untold millions more will see the price of food increase as water for agriculture disappears in an area that provides two-thirds of the U.S. winter vegetable production. Climate change has meant less snowmelt in the Rockies, and a 14-year drought in the Southwest cut down on the Colorado River’s flow. Reservoirs are at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was created in the 1930s, down from near capacity in 2000. Lake Powell is in the same condition. Between 2004 and 2013, people tapped underground water equivalent to 1.5 full Lake Meads. In just nine years, an essentially nonrenewable resource was badly depleted.
In the early 21st century, at last 14 percent of the people in the United States are food insecure. With the current conservative philosophy promoting income inequality, that percentage will only increase. And with the conservative indifference regarding water use, this century will see the same number of people being water insecure, going to bed thirsty as well as hungry. California is simply the canary in the coal mine.