Massive California oil spill threatens wildlife and closes beaches

By Veronica Rocha, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 8:06 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021
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7:59 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

What we know about the California oil spill so far

From CNN's Joe Sutton and Susannah Cullinane

Excavators dredge sand to block some of the oil from flowing into Huntington Beach.
Excavators dredge sand to block some of the oil from flowing into Huntington Beach. (Ariana Drehsler/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Cleanup efforts are underway off the coast of Southern California after a 17-mile pipeline leaked 3,111 barrels — or 127,000 gallons — of crude oil in the ocean, and devastated some local wildlife.

The leak, reported Saturday about 5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach in Orange County, appears to have stopped, officials said. Meanwhile, divers are inspecting the 17-mile pipeline to find the exact source of the spill.

Here's what we know so far about the oil spill:

What happened: Amplify Energy notified the Coast Guard on Saturday morning when employees were conducting a line inspection and noticed a sheen in the water, the company president and CEO Martyn Willsher said.

The pipeline has been "suctioned at both ends to keep additional crude out," Willsher said, adding he doesn't expect more oil to be released.

The company was working with local, state and federal agencies on recovery efforts, Willsher said.

About the pipeline: The pipeline is owned by the Houston-based oil and gas company Amplify Energy, Willsher said. Amplify is a small, independent company with 222 employees as of the end of 2018, the last time it reported its staff size in a company filing. Its most recent financial report shows sales of $153 million, with year-to-date losses of $54.4 million through the end of June.

The facilities operating the pipeline were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s and are inspected every other year, including during the pandemic, he said.

Wildlife threatened: So far, wildlife experts have recovered four live oiled birds, one of which had to be euthanized. But, the extent of the ecological damage won't be know for another couple of weeks.

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said Sunday dead birds and fish were washing up on the shore.

"The oil has infiltrated the entirety of the (Talbert) wetlands. There's significant impacts to wildlife there," she said. "These are wetlands that we've been working with the Army Corps of Engineers, with (a local) land trust, with all the community wildlife partners to make sure to create this beautiful, natural habitat for decades. And now in just a day, it's completely destroyed."

Health risks: Orange County health officials advised residents to avoid recreational activities on the coastline and recommended people who may have encountered the oil seek medical attention. Effects of oil or dispersants on people could include eye and skin irritation, headache and vomiting, with children and older people more at risk, an area health agency said.

Beach closures: The city of Laguna Beach announced Sunday evening all beaches would close to the public beginning at 9 p.m., while Newport Beach issued an advisory warning people to avoid contact with ocean water and areas of beach impacted by oil. Sections of the shoreline at Huntington Beach were closed on Saturday, with Mayor Kim Carr on Sunday describing the spill as a "potential ecological disaster."

About the area: The oil spill is just the latest such incident to hit California's shores, including the 1969 spill of as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara. Locally, Huntington Beach bore the brunt of a 1990 spill of about 417,000 gallons of crude oil when an oil tanker ran over its anchor and punctured its hull.

How it compares: The current spill, at 126,000 gallons, would fill about 20% of an Olympic-sized pool. Its volume pales in comparison to the most serious oil spills in history, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (11 million gallons) and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico (134 million gallons).

7:37 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Vacationers spot blobs of oil in Newport Beach

From CNN's Maeve Reston

In Newport Beach, a vast expanse of beach was still open with the beach chairs of scattered vacationers dotting the sand. 

Mike McClure, a 46-year-old police officer, and his friend Robert Arnett, 54, were visiting from Mesa, Arizona and said it was the intermittent afternoon thunderstorms that had chased families off the beach rather than the spill — which they said they’d heard little about. 

On this first day of their vacation, Arnett said they’d noticed blobs of oil on the sand ranging from the size of a golf ball to larger than a softball, but had not heard much about the size of the spill. 

McClure said he had seen kids in the waves throughout the day and did not have concerns about going in the water himself after the thunderstorms had passed.

“It seems like you could still go out there and just keep an eye out a little bit,” he said gesturing toward the ocean. “You can see little spots of black on the sand every five yards or 10 yards, but that’s it.”

“Honestly I’m not too concerned, because I’ll be back next year and hopefully it will be good by then. But I’m sure for the people around here, they are probably way more concerned,” McClure said. 

“I wouldn’t want them to shut the beach down, because it doesn’t seem necessary at this point,” said Arnett. 

They had watched dolphins swimming along the beach earlier in the day, but had not seen any kind of oil sheen within the waves yet. 

“We made the mistake of picking up one of those little blobs and they are nasty,” Arnett said. 

“We’re just so sad. This is so horrible,” said Jessica Johnson of Newport Beach, who had brought her two sons and their dog to an open portion of Newport Beach to check the waves for signs of oil. So far, they could only see scattered globs of tar on the sand. 

Thirteen-year-old Jay Johnson, who has been surfing for four years, said he was worried it could be weeks, if not months, before it was safe to get back in the water. 

“I check Surfline a lot and it has said you can’t go surfing, because you don’t want to get oil in your lungs and they don’t know how long it will be until it’s completely gone,” Jay Johnson said. “I just think they really shouldn’t have those oil rigs off the coast here anymore.” 

“It doesn’t look too bad here” in Newport Beach, he said, “but I’ve seen pictures from from Huntington and it looks really bad there.” 

“Most everyone I know is really upset and just feeling like this is needless,” Jessica Johnson said. “The spill, it just shouldn’t happen. You should have the technology to be aware. If a tire is leaking on a car, there’s technology now to tell you. There should be bigger protections.”

7:06 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

The world is dependent on fossil fuels. Here's why transforming the system won't happen overnight.

From CNN's Rachel Ramirez

Humans have been burning fossil fuels for energy since the Industrial Revolution. We use them to heat our homes, cook our food and fuel our cars. Over the course of more than a century, fossil fuels became entrenched in every aspect of the economy and people's lives.

Our reliance on oil, coal and natural gas created the climate crisis, and it threatens ecosystems and human health through acute environmental disasters, like this weekend's oil spill off the coast of California.

Fossil fuel accounts for more than 80% of global energy consumption, and transforming a system so vastly dependent on them won't happen overnight, said Iraj Ershaghi, the director of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Southern California.

The challenge, according Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist and oil spill expert, comes down to to either taking advantage of fossil fuel – an affordable and geopolitically vital source of energy – or ensuring the planet's future viability by leaving most of it in the ground.

"Our whole energy economy is built around easy, cheap fossil fuels, but they're not that cheap when you really incorporate the long-term economic costs of that we're starting to see today," he told CNN. "We need to get serious about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels."

"No matter how safely the oil industry and governments think they can do this, there's always a risk," Steiner said. "Every single one of these offshore oil spill is another indication that we need to be moving away from the [fossil fuel] industry."

The solution: Experts told CNN the only way to achieve that is through bold, systemic policy changes that would rapidly and equitably transform the entire energy system that people have come to rely on in their daily lives. And Ershaghi said as long as there is demand for oil and gas, companies will not stop extracting fossil fuels.

"Energy companies are looking for cash flow," he added. "The fact is the demand for our economy runs on oil and gas, and we are not moving fast enough on the renewable areas."

Still, there are things the government can do. Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for Oceana, a group working to protect the planet's oceans, said the US could end fossil fuel subsidies, something President Biden pledged to address, and instead fund the transition to clean energy by supporting renewable energy.

Keep reading here.

7:03 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Here's what it looks like in Huntington Beach as cleanup efforts continue

From CNN's Maeve Reston

(Maeve Reston/CNN)
(Maeve Reston/CNN)

As the Pacific Coast Highway curves along the open expanse of sand in Huntington Beach, blue banners line the roadway welcoming tourists to “Surf City USA.”

But on Monday, the entry points to those beaches were closed off and abandoned as oil from the massive spill — more than 4.5 miles off shore — marred the coastline, threatening wildlife along this normally sparkling stretch of ocean front.

A short distance to the south near the mouth of the Santa Ana River, workers in white hazmat suits and helmets monitored seepage from the spill into the fragile ecosystem of wetlands that stretch for two miles on the other side of the highway from the ocean. Gulls and shorebirds gathered in the marshy sand of what is a crucial habitat for migrating birds as the rainbow sheen of oil fanned out in shimmering ribbons across the water in the Talbert Channel.

Large clumps of oil had collected around the blue floating partitions placed in the water to contain the spill as thunder boomed overhead and a light rain began to fall.

Mike Ortiz had come out on the Huntington Beach bike path Monday afternoon to survey the damage. The Huntington Beach resident was concerned about the long-term damage and effects on the wildlife, as well as access to his family’s beloved beaches.

“You’d think there would be better safety mechanisms in place to keep it contained earlier — it seems crazy that it got as big as it did before they got a handle on it,” he said.

6:28 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Authorities consider ship's anchor as possible cause of oil spill

From CNN's Cheri Mossburg

Authorities are examining whether a ship’s anchor could have caused the devastating oil spill just off the Orange County coast over the weekend.

“These ships are anchored and many are awaiting entry into the San Pedro Bay Port complex the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And in the course of transit it is possible that they would transit over pipeline,” US Coast Guard Capt. Rebecca Ore said in a news conference Monday.

Meanwhile, response efforts to the oil spill on Southern California’s coast line have doubled in the past 24 hours as officials continue to fly over the area and assess the leak from the water, according to the US Coast Guard.

Oil is appearing along the coast in the form of tar balls and tar patties from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach, which are closed as a result.

A fleet of boats are using booms and skimmers to isolate and contain the oil, which Ore calls a “complex, dynamic, and evolving situation.”

Additionally, 14 vessels are on water in addition to the Coast Guard and four teams are assessing the footprint of the spill, taking particular note of seven locally sensitive sites including Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and Talbert Marsh, according to Lt. Christian Corbo of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Newport Beach Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said his agency received multiple reports of a smell up and down the coast from lifeguards and police officers. Those reports were all unconfirmed, and Boyles said “about once a month methane-type smells are reported, sometimes with the receding tide.”


7:07 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

District attorney says he's "alarmed by" what he heard from energy company about their leak investigation


Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he is "deeply concerned" about the economic and wildlife impact to the area affected by the oil spill.

"Somebody is going to pay for that," he said.

Spitzer said that he has assigned investigators from his office to probe the incident. However, Spitzer said that he is still determining if he, as a local district attorney, has jurisdiction over the leak. This will be determined based on where the rupture in the pipeline occurred, Spitzer said.

Spitzer said that he is "alarmed by" what he heard from the pipeline company, Amplify Energy, about the state of their internal investigation, in particular, that they are sending their own divers to the site of the leak to examine the leak.

He said that no diver from the company "should touch that pipeline."

On Twitter, Spitzer reiterated his position saying in a series of tweets, "It is sickening to witness the destruction to our beautiful Orange County beaches and the lasting economic devastation that this disaster will cause to our county."

"Our beaches and coastline are what draw people from around the world to Orange County and the people responsible for endangering our wildlife and marring our picturesque beaches and shorelines must be held accountable," another tweet said.
4:06 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Investigators are narrowing in on the source of the oil leak

From CNN's Cheri Mossburg

Floating barriers known as booms try to stop the further incursion of oil into Talbert Marsh on October 4.
Floating barriers known as booms try to stop the further incursion of oil into Talbert Marsh on October 4. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

Investigators using remotely operated underwater vehicles have narrowed in on the section of pipeline believed to be the source of the oil leak responsible for defiling Southern California’s coastal waters and pristine beaches, Amplify Energy President and CEO Martyn Willsher said in a news conference.

“There is no active leak that we are aware of, especially in that specific area,” said Willsher, a further indication that the leak has been staunched.

Divers will be going down to inspect that specific section of the pipeline later today, and Willsher acknowledged that a ship’s anchor is a “distinct possibility” of causing the damage, though a cause has not yet been determined.

He expected the source of the oil spill would be reported within the next 24 hours.

According to Willsher, the crude oil pipeline is cleaned weekly, and regular inspections measure wall thickness. “We have never seen degradation of pipe from the inside,” Willsher said.

Amplify Energy is insured, Willsher said, and will pay for the costs of the cleanup. 

4:01 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Maximum amount of oil spilled is about "127,000 gallons," CEO of company who owns pipeline says


Martyn Willsher, president and chief executive officer of Amplify Energy, said that the maximum amount of oil that spilled during the leak off the coast of Southern California is about 3,111 barrels — or 127,000 gallons.

The pipeline that caused the leak is owned by the Houston-based oil and gas company. Willsher said that the company is continuing to investigate to determine the "actual" amount of oil that spilled and they will "update when we can."

The CEO said he expects to know more "within the next 24 hours" and provide a "much better answer."

According to Willsher, there is "no active leak" that the company is aware of.

More on the pipeline: The facilities operating the pipeline were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s and are inspected every other year, including during the pandemic, Willsher said in a news conference Sunday.

Amplify is a small, independent company with 222 employees as of the end of 2018, the last time it reported its staff size in a company filing. Its most recent financial report shows sales of $153 million, with year-to-date losses of $54.4 million through the end of June.

The company that operates the pipeline, Beta Operating Company LLC, is a subsidiary of Amplify Energy and has been cited by federal regulators for more than 100 violations over the past 11 years, including at least two that led to worker injuries, government and court records show.

Beta Operating Company LLC, has had 125 incidents of non-compliance documented by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a federal agency that oversees the offshore drilling industry. Of those, bureau records show, 53 were warnings, 71 were "component shut-in" violations, and one was a "facility shut-in" violation.

CNN's Casey Tolan, Joe Sutton and Susannah Cullinane contributed reporting to this post. 

4:08 p.m. ET, October 4, 2021

Fishing blocked along some parts of California coast following the spill, state official says

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

The state of California has issued fishing limits along the coast due to the massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, an official said today.

"The closure extends out six miles and a swath of about 20 miles long," said Christian Corbo, a patrol lieutenant of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, during a news conference this afternoon. 

"The closure basically prevents and prohibits the take of any fish within those waters," he continued. "We'll have actively, patrol boats, from Fish and Wildlife patrolling those waters, advising recreational and commercial fishermen of those closures."

Corbo went on to describe the impact the spill has had on local fauna, saying his agency had collected four seabirds so far, three of which are being cared for. 

"Three of those birds are currently being cared for by professionals, one... a pelican, sustained wing injuries which unfortunately we had to humanely euthanize at the site," he said.