The Cleanest Line


Photo: Tim Davis
August 22, 2015. The Santa Barbara chapter of Surfrider, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, the Environmental Defense Center and Patagonia held a paddle-out to raise awareness for legislation that would prevent future spills like the 2015 Refugio oil spill. Goleta, California. Photo: Tim Davis

#CrudeAwakening 2.0: A One-Year Review of Hashtag Activism

By Ethan Stewart   |   Sep 29, 2016 September 29, 2016

Just over 16 months ago, on an otherwise picture-perfect May day along California’s Gaviota Coast, an old onshore oil pipeline sprang a leak and more than 140,000 gallons of crude was let loose into a landscape that is regarded by researchers as one of the most biologically important and diverse in the world. It was a disaster and, more to the point, it was a disaster that could have been prevented.

The Refugio Oil Spill, as the event came to be known, happened just a short drive up the coast from Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura. It closed beaches, killed birds, terrorized marine life, messed up surf breaks and smothered kelp beds. It was not the “worst case scenario” we fear daily here along the coasts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, but it was close. Too damn close.

Oil is a big part of life in this corner of California. It is an underpinning to our local economy and an all too regular reminder to residents about the dirty realities of our collective fossil fuel addiction. As word spread that this particular spill was not simply the result of bad luck, but was more the result of careless corporate oversight and an industry plagued by antiquated regulations, well, the people began to mobilize.

Photo: Paul Wellman
May 19, 2015. Oil coats the shoreline near Refugio State Beach, California. Photo: Paul Wellman

Within just a few months, four separate pieces of legislation had found their way into California’s State Legislature designed specifically to make existing oil drilling safer and improve cleanup response efforts. Hoping to raise awareness of these topics for coastal communities around the world and shine a light on the efforts of local groups like Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Environmental Defense Center and Surfrider Foundation, Patagonia launched the #CrudeAwakening campaign, a call to action for activists and regulators and oil industry insiders everywhere to help prevent future spills along our beaches and waterways. It wasn’t about stopping oil. It was about being better about it.

The effort was kicked off by a stealth grassroots protest paddle in late August of 2015 to an offshore oil platform five miles out in the Santa Barbara Channel. Images and video of the action were shared around the world. I was part of that early morning mission in the fog and, when three of those four bills were passed just a few months later (SB 414, AB 864 and SB 295), I felt the quick-lived and heady rush of helping inspire “progress.”

But that was then. The real question is, where are we now? Are we any closer to being better, more earth-minded oil and gas junkies? After all, each of the last several years has earned the dubious distinction of being the “Hottest Year on Record,” each outpacing the preceding one, and now 2016 is well on the way to smashing that most dubious high mercury mark again. Looking honestly at how we use oil and gas has never been more important.

What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of all things oil and gas but more a consciously curated and reflective look at where we truly are in our #CrudeAwakening. The conclusion is up to you.

The Crimson Spill

As the saying goes, the more things change the more things stay the same. It was impossible not to feel that way on June 23, 2016, when, nearly a year to the day since Refugio, yet another aged onshore pipeline sprang a big leak here in Southern California. Called the Crimson Spill, the incident saw some 29,000 gallons of crude oil rush out from a 75-year-old pipeline that connects the oil fields in Ventura County to refineries in Los Angeles.

Emergency response crews were able to prevent the flow from making it to the ocean but, for the people in the well-populated Prince Barranca neighborhood surrounding the ruptured pipe, this was of little comfort. While the investigation is still ongoing, one thing has become resoundingly clear: This spill could have been prevented with more contemporary oversight practices, twenty-first century technology and improved industry transparency.

Methane Gas Emissions

In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules aimed specifically at reducing the methane gas emissions rampant in the oil and gas industry. The primary ingredient in natural gas, methane is 80 times more destructive than well-known greenhouse gas culprit carbon dioxide (CO2) during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. The policy, which is the first of its kind targeting methane, requires that operators, among other things, use the best available technology in their drilling equipment and storage facilities to capture methane seeps. Applicable only to new or updated leases (the Obama Administration is still trying to figure out the ever more important regulatory mechanisms for the methane pollution of existing operations), these new policies are forecast to reduce our annual domestic industrial methane pollution by 40 to 45% by 2025.

Porter Ranch Gas Leak

On a related note, our country’s second-largest natural gas storage facility leaked uncontrollably from late October 2015 through late February 2016. Owned by the Southern California Gas Company, the underground structure in the Santa Susana Mountains just outside of Porter Ranch, north of Los Angeles, was responsible for sending some 97,100 tonnes (metric tons) of methane and 7,300 tonnes of ethane into the atmosphere. Operators were powerless to stop the leak for nearly four months. Entire communities were turned into virtual ghost towns for much of the leak. At its peak, it was pumping out 1.6 million pounds of methane a day, an amount of greenhouse gas pollution equal to six coal-fired power plants or 4.5 million cars, according to Time Magazine.

The cause of this disaster was a leak from a metal pipe inside of an injection well. The well had been drilled in 1953 and had its safety shutoff valve removed in 1979. The valve was never replaced and it appears that existing policy did not require it. There are currently three new and separate bills making their way through the California legislature as a result of the Porter Ranch leak including SB 887, which would require everything from the immediate inspection of all 14 natural gas facilities in the state and the subsequent development of an annual inspection program to the mandatory installation of subsurface safety valves and assorted other new leak-detection technology.

Michigan Oil Spill

In late July, the company responsible for the costliest inland oil spill in United States history finally got their bill. Enbridge Energy Partners of Canada is on the hook for $177 million after one of their older pipelines ruptured in 2010 near Marshall, Michigan. Wetlands, beaches and neighborhoods were all devastatingly upended as 843,000 gallons of heavy crude spewed into Talmadge Creek and then the Kalamazoo River. A 40-mile swath of the river was ultimately impacted.

Investigation has determined that Enbridge’s response to the spill (or lack thereof) only worked to make a bad situation even worse. Included in the fine are specific conditions requiring Enbridge to not only double down on their leak protection and pipeline maintenance on some 2,000 miles of pipe (spanning seven states) but also to establish a detailed emergency response plan. There is even language identifying two specific stretches of old pipe that run underwater in the Straits of Mackinac, a critical waterway that links Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. This final fine from the EPA comes in addition to the $1.2 billion paid out by Enbridge for cleanup and restoration, $75 million in fines from the State of Michigan, and some $115 million more in various reimbursement and settlement costs.

Photo: National Wildlife Federation

A diver points out broken supports on the Line 5 oil pipeline, 200 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan. Photo: National Wildlife Federation. Learn more and take action

Keystone XL Lawsuit

Remember the Keystone XL pipeline? The proposed and highly controversial pipe—which would allow tar sands oil to flow from northern Canada to tankers on the coast of Texas via a network of pipes spanning the interior of the United States—was thought by most to have been defeated in November 2015 when the Obama Administration pulled the plug on the project. After six-plus years of review, the prevailing argument was that the full measure of the project, when weighing risks, rewards and real impacts, was not in our nation’s best interest.

Unfortunately, Keystone is far from dead. Thanks to a big old loophole created by NAFTA, the TransCanada Corporation (the company behind Keystone) filed a lawsuit against the United States in late June claiming that our government’s ruling on Keystone was “arbitrary” and thus illegal and discriminatory against the transnational energy company. They are asking for over $15 billion, a number that they arrived at based on their estimated revenue from the project. The case will be heard in a private international court run by the World Bank.

Tanker Spills

2015 saw upwards of 7,000 tonnes of oil lost into the ocean via oil tanker spills. This is roughly equivalent to a 2.15 million-gallon spill. The data comes from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), a London-based outfit of scientists, oceanographers, engineers and geophysicists that provides industry support during spill events. The bulk of last year’s spillage came from two incidents: a 4,500- tonne spill in Singapore in January and an approximately 1,400-tonne spill in Turkey in June. Stretching back to 1970, the ITOPF’s data sets suggest that this is about par for the course in regards to the average number of “big oil spills” via tanker in a year—we have been trending down in that department sharply over the long term (the 1970s averaged 24.5 big spills a year) but have been flatlined at an average of 1.8 big spills a year since 2010. The ITOPF, it should be noted, defines “big spill” as anything in excess of 700 tonnes, or 222,400 gallons.

U.S. Gasoline Consumption

According to data from the U.S. Energy Administration, we, as a nation, used an average of 384.74 million gallons of gasoline a day in 2015. That number is up from the average daily use of 375 million gallons in 2014 but also measurably down from our record high usage rate of 390 million gallons per day in 2007. So far, 2016 is on pace to see that daily usage rate climb once again.

Oil Trains

In early 2015, along the banks of the Kanawha River in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, an oil train derailed in the middle of a snowstorm with catastrophic result. Fireballs shot into the night sky as 19 railcars full of crude (roughly 30,000 gallons per car) caught fire and exploded. Water treatment plants were shut down, thousands of people evacuated and a home was destroyed. The crash was determined to have been caused by a broken rail as the train made its way from desolate oil fields of North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia.

Just over a month later, in a similar incident in northern Illinois, an oil train (also out of North Dakota) derailed in the woods of Galena, very close to where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. Six of eight cars full of crude spilled and caught fire for several days. Since then, at least five more significant oil train crashes/fires have occurred in the United States including an incident in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge in early June when 11 cars of a 96-car Union Pacific oil train jumped the track.

Photo: Silas Bleakley
Oil car derailment in Mosier, Oregon. Photo: Silas Bleakley

Arctic Drilling

It wasn’t too long ago that the Arctic region was considered the next big frontier for offshore drilling. At an oil lease auction in 2008, companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Conoco Phillips plunked down over $2.6 billion to buy the rights to drill some 2.8 million acres of land owned by the U.S. government in places like the Chuchki Sea. Now, amid historically low oil prices and a shifting global view of what constitutes sound oil and gas regulation, those same oil speculators are abandoning their plans at a breakneck pace. On the eve of rent being due on the leases this past spring, Shell and others let go of $2.5 billion in investments and, as a result, nearly 80% of everything that was bought during the rush days has been returned to the federal government. In a related move, the U.S. Government decided last year to suspend any new lease sales for at least the next two years and, earlier this summer, the Department of the Interior released a series of new safety regulations and spill response protocols aimed specifically at any and all future Arctic drilling.

Dakota Access Pipeline Protests

Plans for an oil transport pipeline are at the heart of the current standoff near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where the largest Native American protest in over a century is unfolding. Since spring, tensions have been building between activists from the Standing Rock Reservation, home to the Hunkpapa Lakota and Yontonai Dakota people, and construction crews from Energy Transfer Partners, a multinational, multibillion dollar company behind the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. The roughly 1,200-mile-long pipeline, which would run from the booming oil fields of North Dakota down through South Dakota and Iowa and on to a refinery in Illinois via a tie in to the Bakken pipeline and then on to largely unknown points beyond, is seen by some as a potential economic boom and by many others as a very real threat to the sacred places and the water supply of the Lakota and Dakota people.

By early September, more than 280 native tribes from around the world had traveled to Standing Rock to join the Standing Stone protest encampment now several thousand strong. It is officially a part of the international ReZpect Our Water campaign. There have been arrests, both planned and otherwise, peaceful protests and bloody clashes with private security firms hired by the pipeline company. As of press time, the protest continues to grow and take on a broader message about disenfranchisement and the proper stewardship of Mother Earth as it digs in for fall and the long winter ahead. In a minor victory for activists, the federal government stepped in last week and halted construction on a specific section of the pipeline in North Dakota pending further review and asked Energy Transfer Partners to consider a “voluntary pause” on the remainder of the proposed pipe that is being protested.

So what do you think? Where are we in this journey to a #CrudeAwakening? Have we learned anything from Refugio? Are the ways we harvest oil and gas any safer today than they were last summer? How about the ways we transport our oil and gas? Are we being more conscious of how we go about being oil addicts? Or are we just holding our breath and hoping without any real safety net that the next big oil spill or gas leak disaster doesn’t happen in our backyard?

Just before Christmas last year, history was made in Paris, France, as nearly 200 nations came together and signed the world’s most ambitious environmental treaty to date. (I was there. You can read my coverage on The Cleanest Linehere). Chief among the goals of the so-called Paris Agreement is the wholesale reduction of global CO2 emissions with the stated mandate of keeping global temperature rise “well below two degrees Celsius” by 2100. It also, among many other things, seeks to achieve a carbon-neutral planet by 2050.

None of this would be even remotely possible given our current landscape of oil and gas regulation and the regular drumbeat of spills and mishaps both big and small. However, set to potentially take effect in 2020, this newbie agreement is already sending shock waves through oil and gas and pipeline industries around the world as countries begin to figure out how exactly they will achieve their individual pledges for pollution reduction. It would seem, that for the first time ever, the writing is actually on the wall for the true end of the fossil fuel era as we currently know it. The question is, what will our world look like when we get there?

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