Why is California still drilling for oil despite its ambitious climate goals?

The latest oil spill off Southern California is a reminder that fossil fuels threaten coasts, delicate wetlands, and human health.

An underwater pipeline leaking off Southern California for several days has blanketed miles of the coast in sticky oil. Already, the crude has infiltrated a critical coastal wetland habitat in Huntington Beach and is making its way south as winds and waves disperse the toxic goo.

California has some of the most ambitious climate goals in the United States—it’s aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045, five years earlier than the federal goals—and boasts some of the strongest environmental protection rules in the country. Yet California is still a fossil fuel powerhouse, and oil spills are not a new phenomenon along the coast. Despite its green reputation, counting offshore and onshore drilling, California is the seventh largest source of fossil fuels in the country.

While the state has said it will begin to wind down some of its extraction operations, existing oil extraction, production, and refining will continue to endanger coastline wildlife and human health if there not significant efforts to slow further drilling, says Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center in the Marine Science Institute at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“A spill like this is a symptom of the risks of industrial production,” he says, adding that the cure is to wean the state off fossil fuels.

The spill is still spreading

The Huntington Beach leak was reported on October 2 but likely began at least a day earlier, when a pipeline connected to an oil rig about nine miles offshore sprang a leak. The cause of the leak has not yet been identified.

About 126,000 gallons of oil—about 3,000 barrels— floated to the surface, where it spread quickly into a slick that now covers some 13 square miles. Light winds and gentle tides slowed its progress toward the coast, but by Sunday, thick black oil was washing up along Huntington Beach and points south, including into the Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre wetland along the coast. Stronger winds and waves are likely to spread the pollution further in coming days.

Cleanup teams from the state, private organizations, and universities  are scrambling to keep the oil from getting into other delicate wetlands, attempting to block the oil from entering by setting up floating booms, like thick pool noodles, in front of their entrances. Oil can foul wetlands easily, driving both short and long-term harm to their flora, fauna, sediments, and water. For example, salt marshes in Louisiana suffered lasting damage from 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill for years after the disaster, and beaches that were heavily oiled after a 2015 spill near Santa Barbara showed ecological changes two years after the event.

Sean Anderson, a marine ecologist at California State University, Channel Islands, points to particular harm to the critical tideline zone of the affected beaches. Invertebrates and tiny crabs, a major food source for shorebirds, are usually abundant, but Anderson’s research following the 2015 spill showed the animals suffer in thick oil. This ongoing spill is occurring at a terrible time, he says—during a major seasonal bird migration, meaning many that stop to eat at these beaches and wetlands may struggle to find enough food. The region’s beaches and scattered wetlands support several threatened or endangered species, including the snowy plover and the California least tern.

Huntington Beach’s mayor, Kim Carr, says that the town’s beaches could be closed for months and called the spill “one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades.”

A recent study by researchers from Stanford University found California’s oil to be some of the most expensive—both in dollars and in climate costs—to extract anywhere in the world; the easy stuff was extracted long ago, leaving behind many fields of thick, sludgy leftovers that take a lot of energy and money to turn into anything useful.

Some 72 percent of Californians oppose new offshore drilling projects, according to recent polling from the Public Policy Institute of California. That number that continues to grow, up from about 50 percent in the 2000s.

Many, especially those who live near production or refining sites, are equally opposed to onshore drilling,. A recent analysis by the FractTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that analyzes risks from oil and gas infrastructure, found that over 2 million people, primarily nonwhite residents, live within half a mile of working oil or gas well. A growing body of research is linking extraction-related pollution to health risks, from preterm birth to lung issues.

“This oil spill is just a dangerous reminder of how dirty oil drilling can be,” says Sakashita. “It’s not only spreading oil all up and down our coasts, but also the pollution that deepens our climate crisis.”

No stranger to spills

California has a long history of oil spills befouling its coast: A 1969 blowout near Santa Barbara, which spilled more than four million gallons over 35 miles of coastline and killed thousands of birds, so distressed Americans that it prompted the first Earth Day, in 1970.

Horrified Californians pushed for major changes in their state. All offshore drilling was halted for three years, and they demanded more stringent regulation of efforts in both state and federal waters. The disaster also catalyzed the environmental movement, pushing forward the efforts to pass major environmental laws, like the National Environmental Protection Act in 1970. No new oil leases off the California coast have been approved in either state or federal waters since 1984, which marked the end of the era of building offshore infrastructure. But significant extraction has continued for decades.

In 1990, a tanker accident dumped more than 400,000 gallons (about 10,000 barrels) of oil along 15 miles of coastline along Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach—the same region now being fouled. About 3,400 birds were killed and beaches took months to recover.

In 2015, another blowout happened north of Santa Barbara, pouring 143,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, where it washed up on huge swaths of Refugio Beach and killed over 200 birds and 106 marine mammals. Leaks from tankers and from refineries, such as a 600-gallon spill earlier this year from a Chevron facility near Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay area, have also been all too common.

Fossil fuels still have a tight grip on California

Despite its lofty climate goals, California is still a major producer of fossil fuels, both onshore and off, pumping over 155 million gallons of oil from its geologic coffers each year, though the quantity has been decreasing since 1985 as the reserves get harder to extract. Overall, oil and gas endeavors make up just one percent of the state’s GDP, but that’s still a big number: Long Beach, the city just north of Huntington Beach, gleaned $1.4 billion from their oil and gas projects between 2010 and 2014.

About 20 percent of the state’s oil comes from 23 offshore rigs in federal waters, more than three nautical miles from shore, and four rigs in closer-instate waters, despite the fact that no new extraction zones have been approved since 1984. The oil gets shunted onshore to get refined and processed via pipelines, such as the one that sprang a leak. 

To reach its carbon neutral goals, Californians will need to stop extracting and using fossil fuels, says Kyle Meng, an economist at the UC Santa Barbara who has looked at ways the state can dial back its fossil fuel production.

“Oil production, on or offshore, is on its way out in California,” says “But the question is, is [the state] doing that fast enough?”

Meng and his colleagues found that, independent of new regulation, fossil fuel production in California will decline another 38 percent by 2045, simply because of industry trends—the high cost of production in many old, depleted oil fields. But that’s not enough to get the state to its climate goals: To reach carbon neutrality by 2045, more explicit rules to limit extraction need to be implemented, Meng’s research shows.

In March, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an end to fracking permits in the state by 2024 and a longer-term goal of phasing out all fossil fuel production by 2045. The state says it is studying ways to slow future production, and a recent bill proposed a full ban on new offshore drilling leases along the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts. But as of now, no concrete plans are in place to phase out fossil fuel extraction.

In the meantime, the costs of oil production keep rising. And the cleanup of blowouts like this one will take weeks or months.

“We used to have a disaster like a major oil spill that highlighted a problem, and we’d say ‘let’s fix the problem.’ We don’t seem to be doing that anymore,” says Anderson. He hopes this one will galvanize more energy toward addressing the root causes.

Says Miyoko Sakashita, the oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity: “All those platforms off Southern California have reached their lifespan and should be decommissioned, yesterday, two days ago, or better yet last week, before that oil spill happened.”

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