In May 2015, a major oil spill wreaked havoc on the Californian coastline. Line 901 of the Plains All American Pipeline – a line that had previously been judged as 'extensively corroded' – reached a tipping point and burst, spewing over 140,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into the Pacific Ocean.
While the incident occurred just north of Refugio beach, on the Santa Barbara coastline, oil from the spill spread more than 100 miles. When tar balls were sampled at Crystal Cove, nearly 150 miles away, they were found to contain oil from the burst pipeline. Meanwhile, the impact on biodiversity was alarming.
"Official reports document at least 195 dead birds and 106 dead mammals, including 16 dolphins and over 80 sea lions," says Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "But these are low numbers. Scientists tell us that the full impacts of the oil spill may never be known, as animals killed by the spill can die after travelling away from the area or sink into the sea, never to be recovered."
Monsell points out that the impacts on wildlife were only half the story. The oil spill also had grave consequences for the local economy, with a number of beaches closed for several weeks, and fishing and shellfish harvesting grinding to a standstill. What is more, while clean-up efforts have now been completed, it is thought the region will suffer the effects of the spill for years to come.
"Exposure to toxic fumes from petroleum hydrocarbons during oil spills can cause mortality in whales and dolphins even years after such accidents," says Monsell. "Oil spills also threaten sea otters, covering their fur in thick oil and negatively affecting their body insulation."
This is not the only oil spill to have blighted the Californian coastline. Since 1986, there have been more than 600 oil and gas pipeline spills or explosions in California, causing close to 50 deaths.
Infamously, in 1969, between 3.4 and 4.2 millions of crude oil was spilt over a ten-day period in Santa Barbara.
With the gravity of the situation evident, pressure is mounting on the federal government to enact some changes. In August, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation non-profit, released a formal petition, asking the government to inspect all pipelines off the coast of California for corrosion and other damage.
Comprising 213 miles of pipelines in federal waters, along with additional pipelines in state waters nearer the shore, many of the pipelines in question are over 40 years old, far older than the 28-year-old pipeline that burst. According to one study, after 20 years the annual probability of pipeline failure increases rapidly, more than doubling between the ages of 20 and 40.
Given the harsh conditions in which they're based, offshore pipelines are particularly vulnerable to corrosion. Between 2000 and 2009, there were over four times as many oil spills from offshore rigs and pipelines than there had been in previous decades. The recent rise in offshore fracking in the Pacific looks set to inflate that figure further.
"The pipelines off California's coast may be extensively corroded and damaged, placing California at risk of yet another devastating oil spill," says Monsell.
A toxic threat
If the Center's petition is granted, the current situation may seem untenable. According to preliminary reports, the part of the pipeline that failed was so corroded it had degraded to just 1/16th of an inch.
These reports also suggested that self-policing by the oil industry does not typically lead to accurate reports on pipeline damage. Just weeks before the spill, an in-line inspection by Plains had revealed around 45% metal loss, in stark contrast with the 80% metal loss that seems more commensurate with the actual corrosion.
"Our legal petition requests that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), within the Department of the Interior, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), within the Department of Transportation, inspect all offshore oil and gas pipelines on the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf and in California state waters," explains Monsell.
"Both agencies have jurisdiction over offshore pipelines, and a legal obligation to protect public safety and the environment from the dangers inherent in oil and gas development and transportation. Millions of gallons of crude are pumped through these pipelines every day, posing a toxic threat to the people, wildlife and California's unique coastal environment."
Already, PHMSA and BSEE have broad authority to conduct inspections, ensuring that the facilities comply with regulations. In fact they are required to carry out such inspections every five years. Monsell and colleagues, however, believe this is not enough to guarantee public health and safety.
"Such infrequent inspections are inadequate to ensure problem areas are identified and expeditiously addressed to help ensure against the devastating consequences of oil spills," says Monsell. "The federal government needs to step up to discover and fix faulty pipelines before another oil spill occurs, not after."
At the time of writing, the Center for Biological Diversity is still waiting for agencies to formally respond to its petition. Monsell, however, feels there is no room for further delay.
"Given the threats posed by the aging pipelines littering the ocean off the California coast, we think the petition clearly needs to be granted," says Monsell. "PHMSA and BSEE must inspect offshore pipelines in the Pacific Ocean to ensure the safety of the public and protection of the environment, and thereby comply with their obligations under the law. If they do not grant our petition, we will consider a variety of options, including litigation."
For the time being, the Refugio Oil Spill remains at the forefront of public discussions about the safety of oil production. With an official state of emergency persisting in the local area, and monitoring efforts expected to continue until at least May 2016, the costs of ignoring the issue are plain to see. It remains to be seen whether the latest disaster will prove a genuine wake-up call for those involved in pipeline maintenance.