The pipeline that ruptured on May 19, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, runs right through Santa Barbara County on its way to refineries in the Central Valley. Yet the county has no regulatory authority over it.
“Our county actually had very strict regulations, but then they lost their jurisdiction over this pipeline,” explained Environmental Defense Center chief counsel Linda Krop during a seaside news conference shortly after the spill. “They were robbed of the ability to monitor this pipeline the last 20 years. The federal regulations are much weaker.”
The company that used to operate the pipeline sued Santa Barbara County in the late 1980s. The oil firm claimed the county didn’t have the authority to impose regulations because the pipeline -- now operated by Plains All American Pipeline -- crosses county and federal territory.
For example, Santa Barbara County requires major oil pipelines to be outfitted with automatic shutoff valves. Federal regulators do not require them, so the Plains pipeline didn’t have one.
But the feds do require pipeline operators to undergo regular inspections. Those can include everything from looking for surface erosion on pipes to drug testing of workers. A company may also have its own internal inspection schedule.
The Plains All American pipeline is on a five-year federal inspection cycle. That’s about standard, says John Stoody, from the Association of Oil Pipelines, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.
“A minimum of every five years the operator must evaluate that pipeline, consider the different threats, conduct inspections,” says Stoody. “And then based on the risks, go out and perform maintenance on those pipelines before they become a problem.”
The inspection process is kind of like getting a smog check for your car. A pipeline operator hires a private inspection firm that specializes in that kind of thing. Technicians then runs the pipeline through a battery of tests and submits the results to the pipeline boss, who then hands over the data to government regulators.
“On top of that, you will have regulators, whether it’s the federal government or a state agency that comes out and inspects an operator, inspects the pipeline, their paperwork for the integrity, the safe operation," Stoody says
The state of California has a pipeline inspection team, too. It's a branch of the state fire agency Cal Fire. But the team is small, just a handful of inspectors and engineers.
“Yeah, we’ve been working with minimum staff for a number of years,” says California’s director of pipeline safety, Bob Gorham. “We have three full-time engineers and a couple part-time inspectors.”
They share oversight duties with federal inspectors on some 5,000 miles of pipelines across California.
Gorham says that because his staff is so small, inspections are prioritized based on each pipeline operator’s overall track record.
“And we work very closely with the federal government on the pipeline to try and determine what type of inspections and who to inspect," he says.
Until a couple years ago, Gorham’s crew also had primary oversight of the Plains pipeline that ruptured and sullied the Santa Barbara County coastline.
But because of that staffing shortage, inspection duties on that and hundreds of miles of other pipelines were turned over to federal regulators a couple of years ago.
“And that is a problem nationwide,” says Samya Lutz, of the oil industry watchdog group the Pipeline Safety Trust. “Often the federal government or states will train pipeline inspectors. And once they’re trained up, they might just stay for a year or two before they’re picked off by the industry. Because the industry can typically afford to pay a lot more for those types of jobs.”
But starting salaries for state pipeline inspectors and engineers are set to increase this summer, says Gorham. His department, with field offices in Bakersfield and in the Long Beach area, aims to add about half a dozen additional engineers and inspectors in the coming months.
And California could reclaim pipeline oversight duties that it was forced to hand over over to federal regulators.