Photo: Oil spill; Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm (U.S. Coast Guard)

Charges of negligence over major oil spill off California coast, spark renewed outcries to ban offshore drilling

Oil and gas company Amplify Energy Corp. and its two subsidiaries have been accused of negligent conduct during the large oil spill, which damaged the Southern California Coastline by discharging up to 25,000 gallons of crude oil into federal waters from the pipeline operated by these companies off Huntington Beach. This has renewed efforts to ban new offshore drilling activities.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported last week that a federal grand jury accused three companies of illegally discharging oil during a pipeline break in early October by acting negligently in at least six ways.

Based on this statement, Amplify Energy Corp. and its wholly-owned subsidiaries – Beta Operating Co. LLC (Beta Offshore) and San Pedro Bay Pipeline Co. – are accused of failing to properly respond to eight separate leak alarms over the span of more than 13 hours and improperly restarting the pipeline that had been shut down following the leak alarms.

An indictment filed on Wednesday, 15 December 2021, charges the companies that own and operate the 17-mile-long San Pedro Bay Pipeline with one misdemeanour count of negligent discharge of oil.

The records show that the pipeline, which was used to transfer crude oil from several offshore facilities to a processing plant in Long Beach, began leaking on the afternoon of 1 October, but the three companies allegedly continued to operate the damaged pipeline, on and off, until the next morning.

Katrina Foley, Orange County Supervisor, commented: “We all questioned the veracity of the statements by Amplify. The timeline, the observations of sheen on the water and the smell all pointed to the spill starting earlier. We were lied to at every briefing. They must be held accountable. And we need stricter monitoring.”

Around 25,000 gallons of crude oil were discharged from a point approximately 4.7 miles west of Huntington Beach from a crack in the 16-inch pipeline as a result of the allegedly negligent conduct.

Amplify Energy faces charges of negligence during major oil spill off California coast, sparking renewed outcries to ban offshore drilling
Oil spill; Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm (U.S. Coast Guard)

In its initial statement regarding the oil spill, Amplify Energy claimed that its subsidiary, Beta Offshore, first observed and notified the U.S. Coast Guard of an oil sheen approximately four miles off the coast in Southern California on Saturday, 2 October 2021. The company also added it initiated its Oil Spill Prevention and Response Plan on the same day.

In addition, Amplify Energy’s statement from 4 October 2021 also confirmed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was sent to investigate and attempt to confirm the source of the release, while all of the company’s production and pipeline operations at the Beta field were shut down as a precautionary measure.

In its statement from 18 October, regarding the environmental remediation efforts in Southern California, Amplify Energy stated: “Offshore energy development and maritime traffic can and have coexisted in this region for decades and we are committed to working with maritime stakeholders to investigate this incident and ensure something like this does not happen again.”

Allegations of negligent conduct

Based on the latest update on the oil spill investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries were negligent in at least six ways. Therefore, the indictment alleges that they acted negligently by failing to properly respond to eight alarms from an automated leak detection system that were activated between 4:10 p.m. on 1 October until the final alarm at 5:28 a.m. the following day.

The second allegation of negligence is related to shutting down and then restarting the pipeline five times after the first five alarms were triggered on 1 October, resulting in oil flowing through the damaged pipeline for a cumulative period of more than three hours.

The third one stated that despite the sixth and seventh alarms, the three companies continued pumping oil for three additional hours late on 1 October into the early morning hours of 2 October while a manual leak test was performed.

Based on the fourth allegation, despite the eighth alarm, the companies were operating the pipeline for nearly one hour in the predawn hours of 2 October after a boat they contacted failed to see discharged oil in the middle of the night.

The fifth one alleges that Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries were operating the pipeline with crewmembers who had not been sufficiently trained on the automated leak detection system, while the sixth allegation states they were operating the pipeline with an understaffed and fatigued crew.

Amplify Energy could lose millions in fines if found guilty

It is worth noting that no individuals are named in this indictment. The oil leak is being investigated by the Coast Guard Investigative Service; the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division; and the FBI.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Matthew O’Brien and Brian Faerstein of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.

If convicted, the charge of negligently discharging oil carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years of probation, as well as fines that potentially could total millions of dollars.

Negligent conduct charges spark renewed zest to end offshore drilling

The indictment has prompted many public figures and organizations to express their views, which also led to renewed calls to end offshore drilling.

To remind, the U.S. Coast Guard led the response efforts to the reported oil spill off Newport Beach to put the environmental disaster under control. This oil spill intensified calls for offshore drilling bans in October and sparked outcries from non-profit ocean conservation organizations.

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Oceana was the most vocal one in its outrage and its representatives described the disaster as ‘a legacy of the fossil fuel age,’ which created the ‘addiction’ to oil and gas products. According to Oceana, the only way to stop oil spills would be to permanently ban offshore drilling.

To this end, Senator Dave Min released the following statement upon hearing that Amplify Energy and its two subsidiaries were indicted by a federal grand jury: “I am glad to see our system is working as intended and that those responsible for the damage to our beautiful coastline are being held to full account. Now, it’s time to get to work to ensure that this type of disaster never happens again, and there’s only one way to do that: by ending all offshore drilling off the coast of California. I look forward to introducing legislation in January that will do just that in state waters.”

Another push to end offshore drilling came from the U.S. Representative Mike Levin, who issued the following statement on the indictment of Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries over the mishandling of the Orange County oil spill: “The indictment against Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries reveals a stunning level of negligence and incompetence. It is clear that Amplify should not be operating off the California coast, and I expect they will be held accountable.”

Levin also sided with those, who have been advocating a permanent ban on offshore drilling to protect the future of the coastal economy: “It’s time to end new offshore drilling and phase out existing drilling along our coast. I’m glad the House-passed Build Back Better Act includes a provision to end new drilling and strengthen oversight of existing drilling operators. We must put our ocean and our coastal economy first.”

Oil spill; Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm (U.S. Coast Guard)
Oil spill; Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm (U.S. Coast Guard)

Furthermore, Natural Resources Committee Chair, Raúl M. Grijalva sent a letter with Rep. Katie Porter (chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources) on Friday to request that Amplify Energy and two of its subsidiaries brief members of the Natural Resources Committee on their actions leading up to the disastrous oil spill.

The letter follows two Committee oversight hearings on the oil spill, including a field hearing where members travelled to listen to communities most impacted by the environmental disaster.

The three also sent a separate letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, along with Rep. Jared Huffman (chair of the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife), and Rep. Mike Levin. The letter urged Haaland to review existing offshore fossil fuel leases in federal waters in light of the recently announced indictment of Amplify and its subsidiaries and consider using her authority to terminate certain leases.

Grijalva praised DOJ’s efforts in pursuing the indictment and described the companies’ negligence in allowing the spill to occur as part of a larger pattern: “Too many oil companies have acted with impunity for far too long, reaping huge profits for themselves while leaving a mess of pollution for the public to clean up. It’s time to reassess how the government manages our federal public lands and waters and begin reviewing offshore oil and gas leases for cancellation if they do not meet safety and environmental standards.”

In addition to oversight efforts, the Committee has pursued legislative solutions to strengthen offshore drilling safeguards, including passing Rep. Julia Brownley’s bill, Offshore Pipeline Safety Act, and Rep. Donald McEachin’s bill, Offshore Accountability Act