Aging equipment, spills test ties between oil, California

A work boat pulled a grappling hook along a seabed close to an oil platform off the coast of Southern California in the hope of recovering an anchor chain. It hooked another thing -- a pipeline transporting crude oil from the rig to shore.

Aging equipment, spills test ties between oil, California

Once it was snagged the boat of 197 feet (60 meters) dragged the pipe until it broke on one leg of the drilling platform. The oil gushing created a slick which ran miles along the Ventura County coast north of Los Angeles.

The May 1991 oil platform and pipeline accident is a good example of the environmental risks and trade-offs that are associated with Southern California's famed coastline. After a leaky undersea pipe off Huntington Beach caused havoc on beaches and killed fish, the uneasy relationship is now being tested again.

Investigators think it was likely that a massive anchor from a cargo ship struck the pipeline and pulled it up to one year ago. The damage to the pipeline is believed to have led it cracking and releasing about 25,000 gallons (94.635 liters).

This incident is a reminder to stop drilling in coastal waters. It also comes amid societal reflections on climate change and our continued dependence on fossil fuels. This raises questions about the safety of older equipment, government oversight limits, the willingness of companies to invest in repairs, and whether drilling rigs or pipelines are a good idea near one of the busiest ports.

This latest incident involved a pipeline serving a cluster three oil platforms a few miles offshore, south of Los Angeles. Shell Oil, the original owner of the "Beta Unit", began operating it in 1980. They anticipated that the operation would last for about 35 years. The wells will then be sealed and removed from the platforms and other offshore facilities.

They now operate into the fourth decade.

Amplify Energy Corp. of Houston owns the platforms and pipeline. It was established after Memorial Production Partners, the previous owner, went bankrupt in 2017. The platforms and the pipeline are managed by Subsidiary Beta Offshore.

Beta applied for and was granted approval in 2011 to replace two pipelines that ran between its platforms. One for oil, which had been taken out of service due to corrosion damage, and the other for water that was "at its end of usable life" according to documents submitted to federal regulators.

Miyoko Sakashita, of the Center for Biological Diversity opposed to offshore drilling, stated that the removal of old pipelines should have been a sign that the one that had failed was also at risk.

She said, "I am very concerned that they recognized corrosion and the age of the pipes between platform, but this one was ignored." "California’s offshore oil infrastructure has become old and decrepit. It must be decommissioned immediately."

There are 27 oil-and gas platforms off California's coast. 23 of these platforms are under federal jurisdiction. They range in age from nearly 30 years to over 50, and can be found in water depths ranging from 95 feet (29m) to almost 1,200ft (366m), according to an Aquarium of the Pacific report. The Aquarium of the Pac co-sponsored last year by California State Lands Commission. This commission oversees all pipelines within state waters.

About half of the platforms still produce oil. This goes from the platforms to the refineries via a network pipe system, such as the one that was damaged in the recent spillage.

Environmentalists have complained for years about the poor oversight by federal officials of pipeline companies. A scathing report by the congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office in April found serious problems with how officials monitor these lines -- a problem first identified in 2007.

The report was focused on approximately 8,600 miles (13.840 kilometers) of lines in Gulf of Mexico. According to the report, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement of the Interior Department allows companies to use unreliable methods for detecting leaks. However, it has not systematically tracked whether pipelines are exposed or moved by strong currents or changes in the seafloor.

Officials said that new rules could be developed next year after Deb Haaland, Interior Secretary's top aide, acknowledged the problem. These will include changes in requirements for detecting leaks and inspections of pipelines.

John Smith, who has spent more than 30 years with the federal agency responsible for oil and gas production, The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and its predecessor, Minerals Management Service, stated that there are fewer pipelines in the Pacific than the Gulf. This allows federal regulators to keep a closer eye on the California coast.

He said that Amplify's spillage will prove whether the oversight was sufficient to prevent something that was predicted decades ago.

The federal Minerals Management Service foresaw a 94% chance that there would be a major oil leak off Southern California in the next 30 years. This estimate was made shortly after a tanker accident that flooded Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, as well as the rupture of a pipeline that caused the oil slick in Ventura County.

California's oil industry, which has provided 150,000 jobs and hundreds of million in state tax dollars over the years, has been an uneasy partner to the environmentally conscious state. It is a leader in renewable energy and will ban new gasoline-powered passenger cars in 2035.

After the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara oil spillage that led to modern environmental movements, a moratorium was placed on any new oil and gas leases within state waters. U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel (Orange County Republican) wants to ban cargo ships from anchoring off Orange County's coast. She calls the backlog of unloaded ships "an environmental and public safety crisis."

The Pacific's oil production has dropped 90% since 1995. There have been no new leases for drilling since the 1980s. This means that the industry's profits will be smaller as crude reservoirs below California's offshore platforms become depleted.

Smith stated that it is difficult for them make large investments in equipment or pipelines.

Officials believe that the leak was caused by a small crack in the Amplify pipe. The cause of the leakage remains a mystery, which may never be solved.

Coast Guard investigators believe the anchor was a multi-ton cargo ship anchor that struck the line. The pipe was bent, dragged up to 105 feet (32 metres), and its concrete sheath cracked. It could then have been hit again by another anchor.

Safety inspections were conducted in 2015, 2017, and 2019. They found anomalies in Amplify’s pipeline. There was also metal loss and three previously repaired dents. However, experts who reviewed the reports found that the metal loss was not significant. This could be an indication of a pipe wall thinning as it corrodes over time. The dents did not occur in the same place as the spillage.

Chris Fox, engineer with State Lands Commission overseeing pipelines through state waters, said that it was "one of the cleanest lines" he's ever seen.

The Associated Press obtained the inspection reports through a public records request.

Smith, a consultant in the oil and gas industry, stated that a grappling hook is unlikely to be the culprit in Amplify's case. The pipeline is larger and heavier than the one that failed in 1991 after it was hooked.

It's more difficult to move. He said that it takes a lot more force to drag it 100ft.

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