The past and future of regulating oil

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Today marks one year since an oil pipeline ruptured near Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara County, spilling 143,000 gallons of crude oil along the coast. This week, KCRW is checking in with biologists, professors, agency officials and politicians who have continued to track the spill and its effects on the county.

State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson has authored three bills to prevent future spills and assist with clean-up.

Refugiositevisit KCRW: Let’s start with Senate Bill 295, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last October. It will require annual oil pipeline inspections by the State Fire Marshall. How will that prevent a future spill?

Jackson: The problem with what happened with Plains is that we were inspecting every other year. In the last several years, the oil being transported from offshore is very viscous. In order to thin it out, to let it carry through the pipelines, we’ve had to mix it with very, very corrosive chemicals.

Line 901 was the line that ruptured. Do you know when the last time that was when the line was inspected?

Actually it was inspected just before the spill, but they didn’t get the results until after the spill occurred. There was a section of that pipeline that was over 80 percent corroded, and I believe that was the area that ultimately broke and caused the spill to occur.

Let’s talk about your Rapid Oil Response Act, which was also signed by Governor Brown last year. One of the things it will do is make it possible for local commercial fishing vessels and crews to volunteer with oil response. Who would be directing and managing these crews?

We hope these fishermen — that know the currents where the fishing stock is most likely — will be trained so that if and when a spill occurs, they’ll be right there at the earliest possible time to coordinate with various agencies that have control. SB 414 also requires the state to issue a report on the best achievable technologies for responding to these oil spills, and then train our people so that they are prepared if and when then spills do happen.

You have one more bill that’s still in the Senate. SB 900, the Coast Oil Well Cleanup Act, seeks to cap abandoned and unused oil wells along the California coast. Why do wells become abandoned?

4815f78f-77ce-43d6-be08-4fa7a9aeabf0In the ’50s and ’60s, in particular, a lot of these wells were abandoned by companies that are now out of business. They call them orphaned wells. There’s no one left that’s responsible for them. They’ve remained out in our coastal waters, uncapped and leaking oil for decades.

One of the worst offenders, of course, is the Becker well, right off of Summerland. During particular times of the year, it will leak. We’ll be able to clean up these oil wells. It’s gonna cost a couple million dollars, but the state will do it.

The bill will also call on investigating the other 220 wells along our coastline, identify which ones are the most severe, and eventually start capping them. It also calls upon us to do an in depth study of those improperly abandoned wells and the natural seepage that supposedly exists along the California coast. Every time we talk about cleaning oil wells, people say there’s natural seepage, but there’s never been a study done.

Summerland oil production in the late 1800s. Photos: Santa Barbara Historical Society (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What questions do you still have? Are there still things you want to know about the oil spill? Ask your questions here. We’ll investigate.

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