Refugio spill rekindles debate about oil industry risks

SB CAN Executive Director Ken Hough was interviewed by Keith Carls regarding the May 19, 2015 oil spill at Refugio. Click below to read the article, or click here to read the article on KCOY/KEYT's website.

Refugio Spill Rekindles Debate About Oil Industry Risks

Concern grows about aging pipelines, infrastructure in SB County

Keith Carls, KEYT - KCOY - KKFX Reporter, [email protected]
POSTED: 06:11 AM PDT May 21, 2015 UPDATED: 04:30 PM PDT May 21, 2015 
SANTA MARIA, Calif. - 

Last November voters in Santa Barbara County rejected Measure P, a ballot measure that would have sharply curtailed and restricted future onshore oil development in the county, most notably fracking.

"Measure P was about fracking onshore", says Andy Caldwell of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, or COLAB, while hosting his daily radio talk show, "this (spill) has to do with a pipeline that transports offshore oil throughout the state and to Texas."

Caldwell points out to his listeners that the Santa Barbara Channel is home to natural oil seeps and that the Refugio spill is an accident that can happen.

"Every few days the amount of oil that leaked out of this onshore pipeline leaks into the ocean each and every day naturally, courtesy of mother nature", Caldwell says.

Ken Hough with the Santa Barbara County Action Network, or SBCAN, warns of pipeline accidents waiting to happen across northern Santa Barbara County.

"We’re crisscrossed by dozens, we don’t know how many, old pipelines, new pipelines, proposed pipelines and we don’t have a map of where they are", Hough says, "we’re worried this kind of thing can happen and spoil our drinking water here in the Santa Maria Valley."

"We don’t know where the pipelines are, we know that steel pipelines can get corroded, they have corrosive, high sulfur oil in them and soils around them can be corrosive", Hough says, "so we’re concerned about the potential for our drinking water here to be contaminated. "

"We want to see the City of Santa Maria be more proactive at testing the water to make sure that our aquifer doesn’t have residual elements like benzene from the oil industry", Hough says.

Those who campaigned for Measure P say the Refugio Spill is a wake up call in Santa Barbara County.

"This is a stark example of the industry over-extending itself", says Rebecca Claassen of Santa Barbara County Water Guardians who led the Yes on P campaign, "we’ve got aging pipelines, we’ve got an archaic form of energy and its time to replace it with renewables that are now price competitive."

"I was shocked to see how long the stretch of beach was", Claassen says about the Refugio spill, "yesterday it was about four miles or so, today its more like nine, and just the thickness of the oil and the smell, it nearly knocked me over, I still have a headache 16 hours later."

Claassen says the pursuit and production of oil has become more dangerous.

"The nature of the oil they are going after is getting thicker, more toxic", Claassen says, "they are having to add dilutents to get it to flow through pipelines, its becoming more and more of a hazard."

COLAB's Andy Caldwell says anti-oil crusaders in the county are exploiting the Refugio spill for political gain and points out how important the industry is to the local economy with good-paying jobs and tax revenue to the county.

"We need this industry", Caldwell says, "I believe we have to accept the risks and rewards of having it here. We don’t like it where there’s a spill or an accident especially that which affects the ocean or sea life but the fact of the matter is this pipeline has been in existence for nearly 30 years pumping some 50 to 80,000 gallons of oil an hour for that entire time period and you have an accident once every 30 years, you shut down the industry? I don’t get that."

Caldwell says the oil industry is doing a better job of maintaining and upgrading its onshore infrastructure.

"The industry knows where they (pipelines) are, they are all mapped, and they are checked", Caldwell says, "they checked these pipes for the thickness of the walls and the integrity of the valves and everything else, we don’t know why it failed, we’re going to have to wait to find out."

Industry trade group Western States Petroleum Association, or WSPA, issued the following statement about the spill at Refugio:

"WSPA is monitoring the response to the May 19 crude oil pipeline leak in Santa Barbara County. The emergency response incident command structure has been activated. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are coordinating the federal response effort and the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are coordinating the state response.

As an industry, we are always concerned when accidents like this happen. WSPA members strive to prevent any amount of spillage and have numerous programs and procedures designed to prevent such occurrences. Once the incident is contained and thoroughly cleaned up, they will review the facts surrounding this incident and apply what they learn to prevent future accidents.

We are grateful for the quick response on the part of the Coast Guard, Plains All American, the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response and other responders that appear to have quickly limited the size of the spill. And we appreciate the efforts of the local response agencies and volunteers who are working on cleanup efforts.

Plains All American, the owner of the pipeline, is a member of the Western States Petroleum Association.

The pipeline is operated as a common carrier of crude oil, which means it conveys oil produced by companies operating in the central coastal region of California and delivers it through a network of pipelines to refineries throughout the state."