Climate Action

Santa Barbara Oil Spill Highlights Need for New Thinking on Regulation

Santa Barbara spawned an environmental movement out of an oil spill in 1969, can we do the same with a spill in 2015? Residents and visitors in the Santa Barbara area are experiencing déjà vu as workers clean up an oil spill along the Refugio Coast. This coastline, dotted with state parks, experienced one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history in 1969, and is currently being scrubbed of oil once again. The modern environmental movement can trace some of its roots back to the efforts to clean up the ’69 spill, and this week’s spill should be a final straw for those fighting the fossil fuel industry. Around noon on Tuesday May 19, a leak in a Plain All American pipeline running through Kern County was reported by a visitor to Refugio State Park. The pipeline, running alongside California State Highway 101, spilt an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean and more into the surrounding soil. The oil slick has spread nine miles along the coast and reached as far as fifty feet out into the ocean. Once notified, Plains All American shut off the flow of the pipeline within three hours of the report and put their emergency response plans into effect. Over 250 workers from the company and both state and federal agencies have been on site since the report to clean up the spill. This isn’t the only spill from an oil pipeline in recent memory reported by a citizen, however. In 2006, a pipeline owned by British Petroleum leaked for five days before being detected by a BP employee driving by the site. By the time the worker smelt the leak, 267,000 gallons of crude oil had spilt over two acres around Prudhoe Bay. Once again, in 2010, the Kalamazoo River was contaminated with more than 840,000 gallons of oil from the Canadian tar sands. The Enbridge owned pipeline’s emergency alert system worked as planned, but the control center read them as false alarms and continued pumping oil through a heavily leaking pipeline. More recently, in 2013, North Dakota experienced one of the state’s worst oil spills when a pipeline owned by Tesoro Logistics leaked for an unknown amount of time. When the leak was finally discovered, around 20,600 gallons of crude oil had already saturated the soil under a farmer’s wheat fields. These examples go to show that existing leak detection systems in place are inadequate. So why have these systems remained in place? New systems to detect leaks in oil pipelines have been around for years. The technology ranges from fiber-optic cables that detect temperature fluctuations to acoustic sensors that can hear the leaks when they begin. However, these new technologies have not been widely adopted by the industry, leaving the country vulnerable to slow, long lasting leaks. Current regulation on leak detection system for pipelines is also lacking—along with regulations on pipelines throughout the United States. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which handles the regulation and monitoring, is extremely underfunded and understaffed, and as such is only able to inspect a fraction of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure. The current standards fall short of pushing oil pipeline owners to implement new technologies. The standards are designed for the oil companies, not for the people with pipeline beneath their feet. The standards for leak detection in pipelines need to be bolstered or else we will continue to see devastating leaks that go undiscovered for days or weeks. New technologies are available and it is time for the government to step in and ensure the safety for its citizens and environment. Updates on the Santa Barbara oil spill can be found at and for more information on the state of America’s oil and gas pipelines clickhere.   William Reckley, Intern