Another Major Oil Spill Hits the Southern California Coast

Map of fisheries closures at the Huntington Beach oil spill.

It was only inevitable that another oil massive spill would hit the California coast, as offshore oil drilling continues off Southern California and Big Oil continues to capture the Governor’s Office, Legislature and state regulatory agencies and commissions.

The inevitable happened Saturday when a major oil spill off the Orange County coast reportedly dumped at least 126,000 gallons of oil into coastal waters and local wetlands.

The source of the 13-square mile spill was apparently from a leak from a pipeline connected to Platform Elly, located five miles off the Huntington Beach and just over 7 miles off Long Beach. The offshore rig is one of three operated off the coast by Beta Offshore, a Long Beach, California-based unit of Houston-based Amplify Energy Corporation. Royal Dutch Shell PLC installed the platforms in 1980.

On Sunday morning, the oil, along with dead fish, birds and other marine life, began washing up on Orange County beaches.

“The spill is believed to be coming from a broken pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform about five miles off the coast,” according to a statement from the Sierra Club. “Oil has been flowing since last night, and has begun washing up onshore and seeping into the Talbert Marsh.”

The Coast Guard received an initial report of an oil sheen off the coast of Newport Beach Saturday at approximately 9:10 a.m.

The CDFW Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) then responded to reports of oil in federal waters off Huntington Beach.

“Multiple reports of sheen were made to Cal OES,” wrote OSPR on Twitter. “OSPR crew on water surveilling area. Source, volume & oil type under investigation. Cleanup contractors being mobilized. More to come.

A unified command was then established to respond to the oil spill  approximately 13 square miles in size, 3 miles off the coast of Newport Beach.

The unified command consists of Beta Offshore, the Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW-OSPR). Supporting agencies are the cities of Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Huntington Beach, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“Members of the public are asked to avoid any oiled areas. Trained spill response contractors are working to clean up oil. Public volunteers are not needed and could hinder response efforts. We request that members of the public stay away from the area,” according to a statement from the unified command. “The cause of the spill, volume and type of oil are under investigation.”

In response to the spill, Monica Embrey, Senior Associate Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, released the following statement:

“How many of these oil disasters do we have to witness before our elected leaders understand that there is no safe way to drill or transport dirty fossil fuels? This spill is yet another reminder that we can have healthy and safe communities, thriving coastal economies, and a stable climate — or we can continue drilling for oil. We can’t have both. It’s long past time to choose a transition away from dirty oil drilling and toward a healthier, safer, clean energy future.”

Andrea Leon-Grossmann, Director of Climate Action – Azul, also responded to the massive oil spill.

“We must stop treating the ocean as a profit center with an extractive economy that rewards polluters and hurts the most vulnerable,” said Leon-Grossman. “Protecting biodiversity and demanding a just transition to 100% renewable energy would not just help our climate, it would help protect people’s health and give us an opportunity to have an equitable future.”

Governor Gavin Newsom responded to the oil spill by stating, “We are working closely with federal partners, the @USCG, and others to monitor the oil spill in Orange County. If you are in the area, please heed local warnings and stay away from unsafe areas.”

CDFW-OSPR is monitoring for oiled wildlife. If anyone encounters oiled wildlife, do not approach. Call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 1-877-823-6926.

I will update this report as more responses and information comes in.

Background: Big Oil exerts enormous influence over California regulators

Big Oil is the biggest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento — and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the biggest and most powerful lobbying organization. Big Oil, along with corporate agribusiness, developers, big water agencies, timber companies, and other Big Money interests, has captured the regulatory apparatus in California.

Just four oil industry lobbyist employers alone — the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Chevron, Aera Energy and California Resources Corporation — spent $10,192,047 lobbying the Governor’s Office, Legislature and regulatory agencies to advance Big Oil’s agenda in 2020, according to data posted on the California Secretary of State’s website by February 1, 2021.

The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization in California, spent a total of $4,267,181, less than half of the $8.8 million that it spent in 2019. 2020’s lobbying expenses included $1,084,702 in the fifth quarter, $1,220,986 in the sixth quarter, $1,116,397 in the seventh quarter and $845,096 in the eighth quarter.

The San Ramon-based Chevron, a beneficiary of many new fracking permits this year, spent $4,091,501 in California 2020, less than the $5.9 million in spent in 2019. Chevron spent $1,644,943 in the fifth quarter, $1,009, 322 in the sixth quarter, $752,437 in the seventh quarter and $684,799 in the eighth quarter.

Another big spender and beneficiary of large numbers of new fracking permits this year, Aera Energy, spent a total of $795,099 on lobbying California officials in 2020. Aera pumped $290,926 into lobbying California officials in the fifth quarter, $191,660 in the sixth quarter, $200,082 in the seventh quarter and $112,431 in the eighth quarter of the year.

Aera Energy has close ties with the Governor’s Office. In November, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on how Governor Gavin Newsom didn’t follow his own COVID pandemic guidelines when he attended a birthday party for Jason Kinney, a close friend and advisor, at the French Laundry Restaurant in Napa. Kinney is a lobbyist for Axiom Advisors, who lobbies for Aera Energy and other energy corporations.

Jointly owned by Shell and ExxonMobil, Aera produces nearly a quarter of California’s oil and gas production. Aera paid Axiom Advisors $200,000 during 2019 and 2020 for lobbying on oil and gas permitting issues and other matters, according to Donny Shaw and Eric Seidman in Sludge: Newsom Delivers for Energy Clients of Lobbyist He Celebrated at the French Laundry

“As journalist Steve Horn reported for Capital & Main last June, Aera received the first new batch of fracking permits from the Newsom administration after a months-long moratorium. Newsom had placed a temporary ban on new fracking permits in California in November 2019 following a series of scandals at the state’s oil well regulatory agency, the state’s conservation agency’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR (now Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM),” Shaw and Seidman wrote.

Finally, the California Resources Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, spent $1,038,266 to influence state officials in 2020. The corporation spent $310,198 on lobbying in the fifth quarter, $344,960 in the sixth quarter, $146,543 in the seventh quarter and $236,565 in the eight quarter.

The oil companies were amply rewarded for the over $10 million that they spent on lobbying last year. In a year of record fires and an unprecedented pandemic, California oil regulators more than doubled the approval of permits in 2020 to drill new oil and gas production wells.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) of the Department of Conservation, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, approved more than 1,700 new oil and gas production well permits in 2020, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance reported.

“Largely because of a moratorium on high pressure cyclic steaming—a dangerous technique burning carbon-emitting natural gas to make steam used to coax stubborn oil out of the ground– permits for all types of drilling dropped 14%. Very few drilling permits were used to drill new wells — only 60 new wells were drilled in 2020,” the groups noted.

Lobbying is just one of the seven methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 7 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; and (7) contributing to non profit organizations.

The oil industry exerts inordinate influence over the regulators by using a small fraction of the billions of dollars in profits it makes every year to lobby state officials and fund political campaigns.

For example, Big Oil spent an amazing $266 million influencing California politics from 2005 to 2014, according to an analysis of California Secretary of State data by, an online and social media public education and awareness campaign that highlights oil companies’ efforts to “mislead and confuse Californians.”

The industry spent $112 million of this money on lobbying and the other $154 million on political campaigns.

The inordinate influence by Big Oil on California politicians and regulators has resulted in widespread air, ground and water pollution with huge health impacts on mostly Black and Brown communities living near oil and gas wells.

Between 2008 and 2018 alone, oil and gas companies created a statewide total of over 1.3 trillion gallons of oil and gas wastewater in California, enough liquid to fill over 17.6 million household bathtubs, according to a report released by Earthworks, along with allies VISION California and Center for Biological Diversity.

The report reveals that California, often portrayed by the state’s politicians and national media as the nation’s “green” and “progressive” leader, is actually one of the worst states in the U.S. when it comes to regulating the oil and gas industry’s waste.

The regulatory failures range from allowing crops to be irrigated with potentially toxic and radioactive wastewater to storing waste in unlined pits or injecting it into protected groundwater aquifers, according to Earthworks.


Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher