Workers in protective suits clean oil in the Talbert Marsh wetlands on Oct. 4, 2021, in Huntington Beach, California, after an oil spill from a pipeline. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Officials investigating one of California’s largest oil spills are looking into whether a ship's anchor may have struck a pipeline on the ocean floor, causing a major leak of crude into coastal waters and fouling beaches, authorities said Monday.
The head of the company that operates the pipeline said company divers were inspecting the area of the suspected leak, and he expected to have a much better idea of what caused the damage within a day.
An anchor striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said during a news conference. He said divers have examined more than 8,000 feet of pipe and were focusing on “one area of significant interest.”
Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area, Coast Guard officials said.
“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.
The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons of heavy crude into the ocean, contaminating the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he has investigators looking into whether he can bring state charges for the spill. Spitzer said his jurisdiction ends 3 miles offshore.
Spitzer also said Amplify’s divers should not be allowed near the pipeline without an independent authority alongside them.
Other potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.
Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost.
“If the operator had more valves installed on this line, they’d have a much better chance at having the point of failure isolated by now,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization based in Bellingham, Washington.
The pipeline was built using a process known as electric resistance weld, according to a regulatory filing from the company. That welding process has been linked to past oil pipeline failures because corrosion can occur along seams, according to Caram and government safety advisories.
Environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oiled birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.
“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said at a news conference Monday.
Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.
International Bird Rescue, a Fairfield-based group, sent crews to Huntington Beach to help rescue birds affected by the spill. IBR spokesperson Russ Curtis said a small amount of oil on a bird’s feathers can make it hard for them to regulate their body temperature.
"Depending on the water temperature, we often say that there's like a three- or four-day window when they can be rescued safely," Curtis said. "But it just depends on the water temperature and how much oil they have on their body."
Curtis said if you see an animal on the beach that needs help, don't try to pick it up or save it yourself. Instead, call the bird rescue center or other wildlife rescue groups.
Amplify operates three oil platforms about 9 miles off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a 16-inch pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to have come from a rupture in that pipeline about 4 miles from the platform.
In a 2016 spill-response plan submitted to federal regulators, the company said its worst-case spill scenario was based on the assumption of a “full guillotine cut” of the pipeline occurring 3 miles inland from one of its platforms. But an outside consultant concluded that a spill of that size was “very unlikely” at that location because the line is 120 feet deep and beneath a shipping lane where ships do not normally anchor.
The Beta oil field has been owned by at least seven different corporations since it was discovered by Royal Dutch Shell in 1976, records show. A corporate predecessor of Amplify bought the operation in 2012.
The Amplify subsidiary known as Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.
The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity. The worker survived. In a separate incident, crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.
In 1999, a 1.8-mile undersea pipeline running between two platforms sprang two leaks totaling at least 3,800 gallons of oil, causing tar balls to wash up on beaches in Orange County.
The cause of of the leaks was determined to be corrosion that caused pin-sized holes in the steel walls of the pipeline. The owner of the oil field at the time, a partnership between the former Mobil Oil Corp., now ExxonMobil, and Shell Oil Co. called Aera Energy LLC, was fined $48,000 by federal regulators — a penalty environmental groups criticized as a slap on the wrist.
Before the spill, Amplify had high hopes for the Beta oil field and was pouring millions of dollars into upgrades and new “side track” projects that would tap into oil by drilling laterally.
“We have the opportunity to keep going for as long as we want,” Willsher said in an August conference call with investors. He added there was capacity “up to 20,000 barrels a day.”
Investors shared Willsher’s optimism, sending the company's stock up more than sevenfold since the beginning of the year to $5.75 at the close of trading on Friday. The stock plunged more than 40% in morning trading Monday.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and emerged a few months later. It had been using cash generated by the Beta Field and other fields in Oklahoma and Texas to pay down $235 million in debt.
Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker in Washington, Bernard Condon in New York, Felicia Fonseca in Phoenix, Julie Walker in New York, Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, and Stefanie Dazio in Huntington Beach, California, contributed to this report. KQED's Shehreen Karim contributed reporting to this post.