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Ventura Oil Spill Highlights Big Oil Regulatory Capture

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Just a year after the massive Refugio Oil Spill fouled the pristine waters off the Santa Barbara Coast, a leak in an oil pipeline in Hall Canyon in Ventura County was reported at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 23. As many as 700 barrels of crude oil — 29,400 gallons – have been spilled.

The company responsible for the Ventura oil spill, Crimson Pipeline, has a decade-long history of oil spills in California. Spills like this one are becoming increasingly common in a state where Big Oil has captured the regulatory apparatus – and the oil industry is the most powerful corporate lobby.

Fortunately, Ventura County Firefighters halted the oil from flowing towards the ocean, according to Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Mike Lindbery.

“The forward oil flow progress has been stopped,” said Lindbery. “There is no environmental threat to ocean and no evacuations in the area.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Office of Spill Prevention and Response confirmed that no oiled wildlife have been observed or reported — and no oil has reached the ocean or other water from the pipeline spill.

The agency said the oil from the spill has been isolated in Hall Canyon. “There is no oil in the storm drain. Vacuum trucks are collecting the oil,” the CDFW stated.

A multi-agency response has been established to manage cleanup operations in the area impacted by the spill, according to the CDFW in a follow-up statement on June 24. Cleanup crews, including 98 responders and five vacuum trucks, remain on-scene containing and recovering the oil. Air monitoring is being continually conducted to assure safety of responders and residents in the area.

The cause of the spill is currently under investigation. “The unified command response will be independent of that investigation and includes representatives from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Crimson Pipeline, which has taken responsibility for the incident,” the CDFW said.

The CDFW advises the public and media to avoid the impacted area and keep pets on leashes. In addition, they should not attempt to rescue any observed oiled wildlife.

“Untrained individuals who attempt to rescue wildlife may cause more harm than good and may injure themselves in the process,” the Department said.

The number to report oiled wildlife is 877 UCD-OWCN (823-6926).

Aera Energy — owned by affiliates of Shell and ExxonMobil — said it was not the owner of the 700 barrels of oil that spilled in Ventura, challenging an earlier report by an official that Aera owned the oil.

The Center for Biological Diversity said Crimson Pipeline has had at least 10 other spills caused by corrosion, ruptures, equipment failure and other problems in California since 2006, according to federal data. “These incidents resulted in more than $5.8 million in property damage and over 320,000 gallons of hazardous materials being spilled into California’s environment,” a Center statement revealed.

Feds have failed to take any enforcement actions against Crimson

The Center said Crimson operates more than 1,000 miles of pipeline in California, “yet the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does not seem to have taken any enforcement actions against the company or conducted any inspections of its pipelines in the state since 2006.”

“This company has a disturbing history of dangerous oil spills, yet federal pipeline regulators seem to have done almost nothing to protect our state,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center attorney. “The new spill is another grim example of why we have to get pipelines and oil drilling out of California’s vulnerable coastal environment. We’ve got to stop thinking about these oil spills as accidents and start seeing them for what they are: completely predictable ecological tragedies that we can prevent with strong action.”

The Plains All American pipeline rupture in Santa Barbara County last year spilled more than 120,000 gallons of oil onto the California coast, killing hundreds of birds and marine animals in the pristine ocean waters.

The spill imperiled four “marine protected areas” created under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative. Ironically, the so-called MPAs were crafted under the helm of a Big Oil lobbyist, the same lobbyist representing the Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the spill!

An analysis of federal pipeline data commissioned by the Center showed there have been nearly 8,000 serious pipeline breaks nationwide since 1986. These caused 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 — or 84 million gallons — into waterways and on the ground over the past 30 years. More than 35 percent of these incidents have been caused by corrosion or other structural failures,” the Center said.

Since 1986 pipeline accidents in the United States have spilled an average of 3 million gallons of oil or other hazardous liquids per year, the group concluded.

Environmental groups, oil industry respond to spill

In a statement, Director of Sierra Club California Kathryn Phillips also responded to the oil spill: “From Plains All American’s spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, to Shell’s spill in the San Joaquin Valley, to today’s in Ventura, it’s the unacceptable state of reality that oil spills have become the norm here in California.”

“Sierra Club praises the immediate action by Ventura’s first responders, but as we all know too well, there is no way to clean up all the destruction caused by crude oil spills,” she stated.

“Big Oil cannot be permitted to continue to act in such a reckless manner. Our Legislature, Governor Brown, and Congress must act swiftly to put our environment and our public health ahead of corporate polluters’ profits,” Phillips concluded.

Food and Water Watch also responded to the spill in a tweet: “A year after Santa Barbara spill, a Ventura Co. pipe leaks fracked oil. It’s time for 100% renewables.”

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) in Sacramento, said the association is “working with our member companies to assess the situation as well as coordinating with emergency responders, local officials, and agencies.”

“Our first priority – as it is in any incident – remains community safety and immediate cleanup efforts,” Reheis Boyd said.

Oil spill is no surprise

The latest oil spill is no surprise in a state that prides itself on being a “green leader,” but is in fact the third largest oil producer in the country. The oil industry is the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in California — and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the largest and most powerful lobbying organization. Jerry Brown, who styles himself as a “green governor” and “climate leader,” has received millions of dollars in contributions from Big Oil to promote the industry’s agenda.

“Before Jerry Brown signed legislation last month that promises to greatly expand fracking in California, the governor accepted at least $2.49 million in financial donations over the past several years from oil and natural gas interests, according to public records on file with the Secretary of State’s Office and the California Fair Political Practices Commission,” reported Robert Gammon, then editor of the East Bay Express, on October 2, 2013.

The oil industry, including WSPA, Chevron, Phillips 66, AERA Energy, Exxon and Shell, has spent more than $25 million so far in the 2015-16 legislative session. WSPA has spent $12.8 million so far in the session, making them, as usual, the top California lobbying spenders of the session.

In a huge conflict of interest that exemplifies how thoroughly Big Oil has captured the regulatory apparatus in California, WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd chaired the South Coast Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force that created the so-called “marine protected areas” that went into effect in Southern California waters on January 1, 2012. She also served on the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces for the North Coast, North Central Coast and Central Coast.

Something we can live with?

After hearing from dozens of speakers at task force meeting on November 11, 2009, Reheis-Boyd and the other panel members selected a controversial plan that would close fishing in many areas, including waters off Laguna Beach and Point Dume, but do nothing to stop pollution, fracking, oil drilling, military testing or other insults to the ocean in Southern California waters.

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but this has to be done,” panel Chairwoman Catherine Reheis-Boyd told the LA Times in an interview before the vote. “It’s agony to weigh the environmental goals against people’s livelihoods, especially here in Southern California, where the urban/ocean interface is greater than anywhere else in the nation.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s something we hope we can live with,” said Reheis-Boyd, according to Sign on San Diego the same day.

Now not only are we forced to “live with” these faux “marine protected areas,” but we are forced to “live with” the increasingly prominent role that the oil industry plays in California politics. Reheis-Boyd’s rise to power and prominence in California politics was helped tremendously by the greenwashing of her position on the task forces by Brown and Schwarzenegger administration officials and MLPA Initiative advocates, who continually gushed that the corrupt process was “open, transparent and inclusive.”

State officials and MLPA Initiative advocates have continually praised these faux “marine protected areas” as “hope spots,” “Yosemites of the Sea,” and “underwater parks,” when they are anything but. Let’s be clear: the “marine protected areas” created under Reheis-Boyd’s helm fail to protect the ocean from fracking, acidizing, other offshore oil drilling, pollution, military testing, corporate aquaculture and all human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering.

While Reheis-Boyd served on the task forces to “protect” the ocean, the same oil industry that the “marine guardian” represents was conducting environmentally destructive fracking operations off the Southern California coast. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and media investigations by Associated Press and truthout.org in 2013 reveal that the ocean has been fracked at least 203 times in the past 20 years, including the period from 2004 to 2012 that Reheis-Boyd served as a “marine guardian.”

Federal regulators give OK to resumption of offshore fracking

Besides exerting enormous influence over state regulators, WSPA and Big Oil also wield enormous power over federal regulators. Claiming that fracking poses “no significant impact” to the environment, Obama administration officials on May 27 finalized their plans to allow oil companies to resume offshore fracking and acidizing in California’s Santa Barbara Channel after a moratorium on fracking was temporarily imposed as the result of a Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit.

As expected, Reheis-Boyd applauded the Environmental Assessment (EA) report by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that ended the moratorium on offshore hydraulic fracturing in California:

“Today’s final report continues to reaffirm the sound science behind our safe energy production practices,” Reheis-Boyd said in a statement on May 27. “Offshore producers in California will continue to adhere to the strictest safety and operational standards in the world while delivering affordable and reliable energy to U.S. consumers.”

WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in five major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) getting appointed to positions on and influencing regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: and (5) working in collaboration with media. For my in-depth investigation on the five ways WSPA and Big Oil have captured California politics, go here.

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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