LOS ANGELES — Weeks after a massive oil spill marred the Orange County coast with significant environmental and economic damage, state lawmakers met in Sacramento on Thursday to demand that those responsible “be held accountable,” with one legislator calling for an end to offshore drilling in California.
At an oversight hearing by the state Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee, legislators acknowledged that ending offshore drilling would be an extremely difficult task — the majority of oil rigs off California’s coastline are in federally regulated waters. And any effort to rescind leases in state waters for drilling, pipelines and other oil infrastructure could face swift legal challenges and potentially cost taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars.
Still, lawmakers and state officials who testified Thursday agreed that the threats to wildlife and California’s cherished beaches will remain as long as oil is extracted offshore.
“Is offshore drilling worth it? The risks that seem omnipresent jeopardize a coastal economy here in California that is worth approximately $44 billion a year,” said Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine.
Min noted that offshore oil production in both federal and state waters in California accounts for less than 0.3 percent of annual production in the United States.
“That’s not even a drop in the bucket and yet we continually face this threat of oil spills,” he said.
The spill off Huntington Beach dumped an estimated 25,000 gallons into the ocean and investigators suspect it was caused by a cargo ship anchor snagging a 17-mile-long pipeline that runs from an oil platform to the Port of Long Beach.
Thursday’s hearing shed little light on the investigation into the cause of the spill, which occurred 4.5 miles offshore in federal waters. No additional details surfaced about the timing and effectiveness of the response to the spill by the pipeline operator or U.S. Coast Guard, which came into question in the days after the incident.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, provided an overview of the state’s response to the spill. On Sunday, Oct. 3, two days after officials received reports of a potential spill, Bonham said he and other state officials flew over the water to see for themselves the extent of the crisis they faced.
“(What) I viewed from the air that morning terrified me, confirmed we were in the middle of a significant event. We should assume worst case,” Bonham said.
Bonham said that during the first week of the response, there were close to 1,500 people deployed to clean up beaches and sensitive environmental sites, contain the oil floating off the coast and treat wildlife soaked by spilled oil.