Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway, thanks for being with us. On the evening of October 1st, an oily sheen was spotted off the coast of Orange County, California. It wasn't until the next day that Amplify Energy, a company that operates three offshore oil platforms, notified the coast guard of the oil spill and of a rupture in an underwater pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach.
Speaker 2: Huntington Beach officials say that this oil spills a potential ecological disaster. Marine experts say it may be weeks even months before we know the full extent of the damage to the wildlife.
Melissa Harris-Perry: At least 25,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean, washed onto the nearby beaches, and affected fish and birds in the area.
Speaker 2: In the extremely sensitive and protected marshlands throughout the area, city officials say dead fish and birds are being reported. Marine experts say a massive oil spill like this will affect the entire food chain of the ocean and all the animals that call the marshlands home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While the spill wasn't quite as large as initially feared, it has reignited a debate over the safety of offshore drilling. That's in part because it wasn't the only large oil spill this year. Back in August, Hurricane Ida damaged homes and infrastructure from Louisiana all the way to New England. There was also an unprecedented number of oil spills reported across the Gulf of Mexico. Take a listen here to Wilma Subra who deals with environmental human health issues on behalf of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Wilma Subra: Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana and as a result, we had 350 notifications of spills. Some of them were from pipelines, some of them were from rigs, some of them were equipped with that malfunction and spilled oil into the environment. As a result of that, we also had damage to aquatic organisms, we had oil birds and we had dolphins washing onshore that had been negatively impacted. In addition to the hurricane, there was a huge issue associated with contamination from the oil and gas activity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So far, we've been talking a lot about the negative environmental effects of offshore oil and gas drilling, but Wilma says there's a reason why there's so much of it.
Wilma Subra: The offshore in the Gulf of Mexico drilling is located there because there are huge deposits of oil and gas subsurface and the various strata under the Gulf of Mexico. It has provided a huge economic resource to the state of Louisiana and it includes a lot of jobs for the local community members. The issue is it's a very economical drilling and production activity in the Gulf of Mexico and a very large number of people depend directly and indirectly on those jobs. Again it has done a tremendous environmental damage to the environment, to the water bottoms, and into the wetland areas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The federal government leases this land to big and small oil and gas companies who built rigs to drill into the ocean floor and pump that oil and gas through pipelines up into refineries. The companies then send that fuel all over the US. These rigs and pipelines are supposed to be regulated by the federal government, but federal regulation and oversight is often inadequate.
A report released earlier this year from the US Government Accountability Office found that the federal department responsible for regulation is failing to properly monitor and inspect active pipelines. Not only that, the report also revealed that federal regulators have allowed 97% of inactive pipelines built since the 1960s to remain on the ocean floor. Without any monitoring, these pipelines run the risk of breaks or leaks especially as storm intensity increases due to climate change.
In the wake of the recent oil spill in California, I talked with Catherine Kilduff senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. She began by explaining how it's possible for a spill like this to even occur in the first place.
Catherine Kilduff: There's nothing that's not risky about offshore oil drilling and it starts with the undersea pipelines as we've seen and the leaking pipeline, but it doesn't end there. There are impacts on land too, there are impacts to minority communities that are disproportionately affected with the health impacts of fossil fuel production and refining. The pipeline spill is one very visual obvious impact of fossil fuel extraction, but this spill is not the entire extent of the problems from big oil.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's walk through what some of those pieces are. Let's just start with the actual process of this offshore drilling. What does the infrastructure look like?
Catherine Kilduff: The oil platforms are huge and in this particular spill in October, the pipeline was bringing oil from Platform Elly, which is one of 23 platforms in federal waters. Some of that infrastructure, those platforms are over 50 years old and they're well past their expected lifespan.
These are miles offshore. When there's infrastructure in the ocean, it's especially susceptible to corrosion and rust and it's very difficult to maintain. The fact that there are very, very old pieces of equipment far offshore, makes these spills more likely.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given that government is involved here, maybe behaving as though it's profiting but actually subsidizing this, is the government regulating it? Are there other federal or state-based regulations particularly of the pipelines? If so, who's actually actively-- I mean is someone diving and looking? How do we know the regulations are working?
Catherine Kilduff: We know that the regulations aren't working adequately. In this case, the federal government has the option of leasing these public lands to big oil so they could end all leasing, new leasing in federal offshore waters, and they also can suspend the current permits and then cancel those. That would be the way to phase out the offshore oil drilling in California.
In terms of the spill that happened October 3rd, there are requirements that the companies report the spills and we know that that didn't happen immediately. There were reports of a sheen on Friday night and the leak wasn't reported until mid-day on Saturday. It's very difficult to know for undersea pipelines where the leaks are, why they happen. It's especially scary here because they haven't determined a cause.
There are multiple theories even though there are a lot of resources, a lot of people working on this investigation. It could have been that a ship's anchor caught and dragged the pipeline, it could be that pipelines just walk across the ocean in the natural course of events when they heat and expand and contract when it's cold and during storms, or it could be that there was a leak in the pipeline for another reason that we haven't found yet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After big leaks like this, whether we're talking about the BP or other major ones in California like the one in 2015 that you mentioned earlier, do we end up with new regulations after that? Is there a sense of either industry or government regulators learning and implementing new policies?
Catherine Kilduff: Unfortunately, we haven't seen the changes that are needed to prevent these skills. The Deepwater Horizon was in 2010 and the spills are continuing in 2015, the Plains Pipeline, and in October of this year, this pipeline break. What we really, really need is to get off offshore oil extraction in order to protect our coasts, our communities, and our wildlife.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say a bit more about the alternatives to offshore oil drilling.
Catherine Kilduff: Distributed solar would not only be better in terms of reducing emissions and preventing climate change impact but it also is more equitable. Part of the problem with relying on big oil is that these companies control so much of our energy. With distributed solar, for example, solar panels on roofs or on grocery stores, then there's more local sources of energy and that makes communities more resilient. They're less impacted by things like hurricanes or problems in the supply if the pipeline is disrupted or captured by ransomware. If the distributed solar is cleaner, it's better for the environment, and it's better for communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What would be the cost of moving from the existing, clearly faulty infrastructure to something like the distributed solar?
Catherine Kilduff: There's definitely a cost but we know that it is way past the time when we need to rethink and replace the infrastructure that was already built, for example, off California and the offshore waters. These platforms that are over 50 years old need to be refurbished. The question is whether these decisions can be made by the oil industry alone, or whether we, as a nation, can rethink how we're subsidizing the energy sector, how we're putting more power into the hands of people locally, and making it more fair for people because cheap energy and accessible energy is really important for the environment, as long as it's clean, but also for people so that we can be productive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Catherine Kilduff is senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Thank you so much for joining us today, Catherine.
Catherine Kilduff: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
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