Santa Barbara disaster inevitable with Big Oil’s capture of regulatory apparatus

by Dan Bacher
Wednesday May 27th, 2015 8:51 AM
Oil on the beach at Refugio State Park in Santa Barbara, California, on May 19, 2015. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard)

Oil on the beach at Refugio State Park in Santa Barbara, California, on May 19, 2015. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard)

The same region devastated by the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 is now the scene of a massive clean up of crude oil by the state and federal governments and volunteers. The international and national media have spread throughout the world the startling images of the oil soaked beaches, birds, fish and ecosystem in a deluge of TV, radio, newspaper and internet reports.

The oil spill resulted from the rupture of an oil pipeline owned by Plains Pipeline, a subsidiary of Plains All-American Pipeline, near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, May 19. A 24-inch wide, 11-mile long section carrying oil from offshore platforms and an Exxon Mobil processing plant onshore leaked as much as 105,000 gallons of crude oil. An estimated 21,000 gallons made into the ocean, devastating nine miles of coastal waters and beaches.

The oil spill that began off Refugio State Beach was inevitable, when you consider the capture of the regulatory apparatus by the oil industry in California. Until people challenge the power of Big Oil in California and the industry’s control over the state and federal regulatory agencies, we will see more of the Refugio-type of oil spill disasters in the future.

During the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative process from 2004 to 2012, state officials and corporate “environmental” NGOs made sure that Big Oil and other corporate polluters weren’t impacted by the creation of alleged “marine protected areas” along the California coast. The MLPA Initiative, a controversial “public-private partnership” between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF), was supposed to create a network of “marine protected areas” along the California coast.

In an article published widely in June 2010, I warned that the “marine protected areas” created under the MLPA Initiative don’t protect the ocean from oil spills and pollution. (http://yubanet.com/california/MLPA-Initiative-will-do-nothing-to-stop-a-big-oil-spill-off-California.php)

“These marine protected areas, as currently designed, don’t protect against oil spills,” said Sara Randall, then the program director of the Institute for Fishery Resources and Commercial Fishermen of America. “What’s the point of developing marine protected areas if they don’t protect the resources?”

MLPA Initiative advocates claimed that other state and federal laws and administrative actions “protect” the ocean from oil spills and new offshore oil drilling, so there was no need for specific bans or restrictions on oil industry activities in and near “marine protected areas.”

In violation of the provisions of the landmark Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999, the “marine protected areas” failed to protect the ocean from oil spills, oil drilling, pollution, military testing, corporate aquaculture, military testing and all human impacts on the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

Of course, MLPA Initiative advocates neglected to address why Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association in Sacramento, was allowed to CHAIR the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast and to sit on the task forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast, as well as on a NOAA federal marine protected areas panel. (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/mpa/brtf_bios_sc.asp)

They dismissed any questioning of why a Big Oil lobbyist was allowed to oversee “marine protection” in California as “wild conspiracy theories.”

To make matters even worse, the WSPA President’s husband, James Boyd, served on the California Energy Commission from 2002 to 2012. From 2007 to 2012, he served as the Commission’s Vice Chair, the second most powerful position on the Commission! (http://www.energy.ca.gov/commissioners/boyd.html)

However, as we can see from the current oil spill disaster off the coast of Santa Barbara, the state and federal regulatory agencies and the MLPA Initiative’s so-called “marine protected areas” weren’t able to prevent a big oil spill like the one now taking place from occurring – and the fishermen, Tribal members and grassroots environmentalists who criticized oil industry lobbyist oversight of the MLPA Initiative process were absolutely right about their fears that the new “Yosemites of the Sea” wouldn’t protect the ocean.

Ironically, the region impacted by the spill includes three “marine protected areas” created by the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force under the helm of the Western States Petroleum Association President – the Campus Point, Naples and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Areas – along with the Refugio State Marine Conservation Area.

This disaster could have been averted if the pipeline had an automatic shut-off valve, but it didn’t, according to a Santa Barbara County official. Now you will see the federal and state regulatory agencies pointing fingers at each other as to who is to “blame” for the spill when it is the entire regulatory apparatus, now captured by Big Oil, that is really responsible for the spill.

To make matters worse, these same agencies, ranging from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the federal agency that permits offshore drilling, to the California Coastal Commission, failed to stop oil companies from fracking the ocean off California over 200 times over the past 20 years.

Record of pipeline owner marred by 175 incidents since 2006

Now we find out that company that owns the pipeline involved in Tuesday’s major oil spill in Santa Barbara has had 175 incidents (mostly oil spills) nationwide since 2006, including 11 in California, according to a Center for Biological Diversity analysis of federal documents! (http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2015/santa-barbara-oil–spill-05-21-2015.html)

It gets worse. Plains Pipeline has also had federal enforcement actions initiated against it 20 times since 2006 for its operations across the country, according to data from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Many of those cases involve corrosion control and maintenance problems on its pipelines, including two cases in 2009 for which the company was fined $115,600, the Center noted.

“This company’s disturbing record highlights oil production’s toxic threat to California’s coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center’s oceans program director. “Oil pipelines and offshore fracking and drilling endanger our fragile marine ecosystems. Every new oil project increases the risk of fouled beaches and oil-soaked sea life.”

According to Sakashita, the broken pipeline was 28 years old and operated by a company that has been repeatedly warned by government regulators to improve its procedures and control corrosion for its pipelines. Plains Pipeline had five incidents in California in 2014 alone, including the one that dumped oil into a Los Angeles neighborhood a year ago.

“Hundreds of miles of oil pipelines run through California’s coastal areas, posing a serious threat of spills,” warned Sakashita. “A review released by the Center for Biological Diversity of federal data over the past 30 years shows that such oil spills from pipelines are a common and costly byproduct of oil production that has been rapidly increasing in the United States, including offshore.”

An analysis of federal pipeline data commissioned by the Center last year showed there have been nearly 8,000 serious pipeline breaks nationwide since 1986, causing more than 2,300 injuries and nearly $7 billion in property damage.

The vast majority of those incidents have involved oil pipelines, spilling more than 2 million barrels into waterways and on the ground. More than 35 percent of these incidents have been caused by corrosion or other spontaneous structural failures, according to the Center.

The Santa Barbara Channel is rich in biodiversity, featuring whales, dolphins and more than 500 species of fish, including lingcod, white seabass, calico and sand bass, sheephead, ocean whitefish, yellowtail and dozens of species of rockfish. Endangered blue whales often feed in the forage in the channel, also migration path for four other whales listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sakashita reminded people that the Santa Barbara County coastline was the site of an oil platform explosion in 1969 that spilled up to 100,000 barrels of oil. That oil spill, with its massive devastation of fish, wildlife and the ocean ecosystem, served as the impetus for the creation of the modern environmental movement and Earth Day.

“If we’re learned anything over the past 50 years, it’s that coastal oil production remains inherently dangerous to wildlife, local communities and health of the planet,” she said. “To protect our coast, we need to stop offshore drilling and fracking and quickly transition to cleaner energy sources.”

Oil industry is most powerful corporate lobby in California

Oil spills like the latest one off Santa Barbara are inevitable as long as Big Oil is able to exert as much power and influence as it does now in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. The oil industry is the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in California, with the Western States Petroleum Association alone spending $8.9 million on lobbying in 2014, nearly double what it spent the previous year.

The oil industry has spent over $70 million on lobbyists in California since January 2009, according to a 2014 report written by Will Barrett, the Senior Policy Analyst for the American Lung Association in California. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) topped the oil industry spending with a total of $31,179,039 spent on lobbying since January 1, 2009 at the time of Barrett’s report. Chevron was second in lobbying expenses with a total of $15,542,565 spent during the same period. (http://www.lung.org/associations/states/california/advocacy/climate-change/oil-industy-lobbying-report.pdf)

From July 1 to September 30 alone, the oil industry spent an unprecedented $7.1 million lobbying elected officials in California “with a major focus on getting oil companies out of a major clean air regulation,” said Barrett.

Big Oil also exerts its power and influence by spending many millions of dollars every election season on candidates and ballot measures. The oil industry dumped $7.6 million into defeating a measure calling for a fracking ban in Santa Barbara County; yes the same county where the oil spill is now devastating the ecosystem.

Not only does Big Oil spend millions every year on lobbying and campaign contributions, but it funds “Astroturf” campaigns to eviscerate environmental laws. And as we have seen in the case of Catherine Reheis-Boyd and her husband, James Boyd, oil and chemical industry representatives further exert their power and influence by serving on state and federal regulatory panels.

The millions Chevron and other oil companies have spent on lobbying, campaign contributions and setting up “Astroturf” groups promoting the oil industry agenda are just chump change to Big Oil. The five big oil companies – BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell – made $16.4 billion in the last quarter of 2014 and $89.7 billion for the entire year, according to the Center for American Progress. This was done in spite of “sliding” oil prices.

Yet both the mainstream media and the “alternative” media articles that I have read to date have failed in their coverage of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill over the past week, since they have neglected their duty to expose the reason behind the spill – the capture of the regulatory apparatus by Big Oil, a huge environmental scandal that I have exposed in article, after article, after article.

To read my investigative piece on oil industry money and power in California in the East Bay Express, go to: http://www.eastbayexpress.com/SevenDays/archives/2015/02/06/big-oil-group-spent-89-million-last-year-lobbing-jerry-brown-and-california-officials

About Martinez Environmental Group

We are a community health and environmental group located in Martinez, CA.
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