Pipeline rupture a warning of spills to come?

Story highlights

  • Bruce Huber: Santa Barbara oil spill echoes much larger one from 1969 that launched Earth Day and a series of environmental laws
  • He says new spill from pipeline rupture a warning that overtaxed infrastructure puts environment, health at risk.

Bruce Huber is an associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in environmental, natural resources and energy law. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For those who know something about our nation's environmental laws, images of oil on the Santa Barbara coastline evoke a painful, if iconic, memory -- for Tuesday's spill is not the first to degrade that idyllic locale.

In 1969, another, much larger oil spill took place not far away. Nearly 3 million gallons of oil were released into the Santa Barbara Channel after an offshore well blew out, killing countless birds, blackening miles of beach, and precipitating an enormous public outcry.
Bruce Huber
This spill may be smaller, but it should be viewed as a warning.
    This week's Santa Barbara spill was caused not by an offshore well or an oil tanker, but by a rupture in a 24-inch, onshore oil pipeline. According to the L.A. Times, the pipeline operator, a part of Plains All American Pipeline, has been cited for 175 safety and maintenance infractions in the last decade.
    Events like this spill demonstrate that transporting oil is as hazardous as producing it. As domestic oil production has risen in recent years, many have expressed concerns that our existing oil pipeline infrastructure is insufficient to deal with the increase, in terms of both quality and capacity.
    Shipments of oil by rail have climbed substantially, and a recent federal report suggests that many new pipelines are not safe.
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    The Santa Barbara spill is yet another black eye for an industry beleaguered by plummeting oil prices, the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and ongoing disputes over the Keystone XL Pipeline, Arctic drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
    And while opponents of the Keystone project may sound shrill at times, it is well worth remembering the inherent risk associated with oil delivery across sensitive areas, whether the California coast, the plains above the Ogallala aquifer, or the Alaskan tundra.
    In a more functional legislative environment, heading off this risk would be a top priority. One place to begin would be to strengthen penalties associated with spills of this sort, and with the seemingly minor infractions that are often their harbinger.
    According to the Los Angeles Times, Plains Pipeline's many infractions have led to a total of just $115,000 in fines over the past decade, a trivial sum for a company that netted nearly a one billion dollar profit in 2014 alone.
    The 1969 Santa Barbara spill is a study in how this should work: It is on a short list of events that roused Americans from their complacent toxic slumber. Not long after came the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the first Earth Day, and the passage of some of our strongest environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, to name a few.
    The 1969 spill was tragic, to be sure, but in this view it had the somewhat redemptive effect of catalyzing a major and beneficial change in national environmental policy.
    The spill of 2015, however, is unlikely to trigger a wave of new legislation. In part, that's because there is already a good deal of law to deal with an oil spill of this sort. (The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, for example, strengthened the liability and response regimes that reduce and contain oil spills.).
    It's also because the current spill is much smaller than the one in 1969, this time involving perhaps 105,000 gallons of crude oil, authorities say -- a fraction of the amount released in 1969.
    And new legislation would require bipartisan compromise, which has been in short supply in recent years. (Indeed, most environmental scholars would agree that there has been no major environmental legislation since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.)
    In the absence of new legislation, redoubled enforcement of existing regulation would be a helpful step. The Oil Pollution Act's effect is only as robust as its enforcement, and a great deal of pipeline inspection today begins and ends with the representations of pipeline companies themselves. Plains Pipeline's record, and this week's spill, suggests that more thorough oversight may be required to adequately deter future spills.
    As Shell prepares to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic this summer, the grim scenes of the Santa Barbara beach should compel the strongest of precautions and should renew efforts to reduce dependence on petroleum products.
    Most accidents are avoidable, but avoiding them requires vigilance. One hopes that disaster is not the only catalyst for change: our awareness today of the deficiencies in our onshore oil transport system must lead to action now, before another devastating spill.