CD242 The Offshore Drilling Police

CD242 The Offshore Drilling Police

Nov 14, 2021

On October 1, 2021 an oil pipeline that was likely struck by a cargo ship’s anchor leaked tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean and onto the beaches of Orange County, CA. In this episode, examine how the oil spill happened by listening to testimony provided to both the U.S. Congress and the California State Senate, and learn about the disturbing lack of policing that is taking place under the sea.

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Background Sources

Articles and Documents

Nicole Charky. April 7, 2021. “LA City Council Urges Newsom To Close Playa Del Rey Oil Storage.” Patch.

Nicole Charky. March 23, 2021. “Is It Time To Shut Down The Playa Del Rey Oil Storage Facility?” Patch.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Offshore Oil and Gas: Updated Regulations Needed to Improve Pipeline Oversight and Decommissioning. GAO-21-293.

Heal the Bay. June 24, 2015 . “Confirmed: L.A. Tar Balls Linked to Santa Barbara Spill.”

Heal the Bay. August 20, 2012. “What Are Those Black Clumps on the Beach?”

Sarah S. Elkind. June 1, 2012. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Volume 99, Issue 1.

Tom Fowler. February 21, 2012. “U.S., Mexico Sign Deal on Oil Drilling in Gulf.” The Wall Street Journal.

APPEL News Staff. May 10, 2011. “Academy Case Study: The Deepwater Horizon Accident Lessons for NASA.” APPEL News, Volume 4, Issue 1.

Offshore Technology. “Projects: Macondo Prospect, Gulf of Mexico.”

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. November 23, 1970. Treaty to Resolve Pending Boundary Differences and Maintain the Rio Grande and Colorado River as the International Boundary.

Open Secrets Profiles

Rep. Yvette Herrell – New Mexico District 02

Rep. Paul Gosar – Arizona District 04

Rep. Bruce Westerman – Arkansas District 04

Rep. Katie Porter – California District 45

Rep. Pete Stauber – Minnesota District 08


Playa del Ray in the 1920s

2021 Huntington Bay Oil Spill Image 1. CA State Senate: Natural Resources and Water Committee Informational Hearing Southern California Oil Spill: Preparation response, ongoing risks, and potential solutions.

2021Huntington Bay Oil Spill Image 2 CA State Senate: Natural Resources and Water Committee Informational Hearing Southern California Oil Spill: Preparation response, ongoing risks, and potential solutions.

Mileage of Decommissioned Pipelines Removed Relative to Those Left in Place. GAO Analysis of Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Data, GAO-21-293.

Potential Effects of Currents on Pipeline Leak Identification. GAO-21-293.


Southern California Oil Spill: Preparation response, ongoing risks, and potential solutions

California State Senate: Natural Resources and Water Committee
Thursday, October 28, 2021


Chuck Bonham
Head of California Department of Fishing and Wildlife
Tom Cullen
Administrator of OSPR (Offshore Spill Prevention and Response)
Kim Carr
Mayor Pro Tem, City of Huntington Beach
Brian Nowicki
California Climate Policy Director at the Center for Biological Diversity
Pete Stauffer
Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation
Jennifer Lucchesi
State Lands Commission


  • 3:44 Senator Henry Stern: But the pipeline that runs to Amplify and Beta Offshore’s platform is the source of the oil production that runs through the pipeline in question. That pipeline is in federal jurisdiction but it brings that produced oil onshore into the state waters and eventually on state lands.
  • 21:05 Chuck Bonham: What we now know is about four and a half miles offshore, so in federal waters, there’s a pipeline that runs from one platform, which is a collection of three platforms operated by a company called Beta Offshore, owned by a company called Amplify Energy. That last platform, Ellie, has a pipeline which delivers the product 17.7 miles inland, where the pipe comes on shore just below the Queen Mary more or less, to land based infrastructure. That pipe had a rupture in it. And we now know based on visual and diver and other evidentiary efforts, that about 4000 feet of that pipeline was moved about 105 feet off of center. And in that stretch is about a 13 inch horizontal, almost like a hairline fracture. If you could imagine a bone break in a pipe, which is, I think, about 13 inches in diameter, concrete on the outside and metal on the inside. That’s the likely source of the leak.
  • 22:25 Chuck Bonham: From the very beginning moments, all of us involved assumed a worse case. At that moment in time we had a planning number of a spill of about 3,134 Barrels which is 131,000 gallons rounding as a maximum worst case.
  • 30:59 Chuck Bonham: A month later we now think the likely spill number is 24,696 gallons
  • 41:13 Chuck Bonham: Fortunately given the size of the spill, there were not as many wildlife casualties as could have occurred during a higher migration cycle.
    1:25:47 Mayor Kim Carr: So starting off on Saturday, October 2, it’s been brought up that yes, we did have a very large air show happening that day. About 1.5 million people were on the beach that day to see the Pacific Air Show. And around nine o’clock that morning, there were city personnel that heard an announcement on VHF channel 16 by the Coast Guard of a possible oil spill in the area, but nothing very specific. At that time, no major details, it wasn’t anything to really worry about. By 10:30 in the morning, the Coast Guard had advised us that the spill was larger than originally thought. However, we didn’t have a whole lot of information as to where the location of the spill was nor of the scope of the situation. By 11 o’clock that same day, the Coast Guard had announced that it was now going to be a major spill, and that the incident management team was being activated.
  • 1:28:00 Mayor Kim Carr: At two o’clock, the Coast Guard had advised us that the oil spill would not be reaching the shores of Huntington Beach until Monday, October 4. And again, we didn’t have a whole lot of information as to where the spill was. We knew it was off our coast, but we didn’t know exactly where or exactly how large the spill was. But then interestingly enough, just a half hour later, we started to receive messages that there were boats that were experiencing oil damage just outside of the air show flight box. And so that became a concern for our city. So then we activated our fire crews, our hazmat team, or the oil spill response trailer and started to do the mitigation efforts. Then this is where it gets to be very, very interesting. At 2:45 the city was notified by the Newport Beach rescue vessel that there were private contractors conducting oil spill cleanups outside of the air show flight box.
  • 1:32:42 Mayor Kim Carr: What we could have done better, what would have been an opportunity was perhaps if the Coast Guard had some sort of awareness, the night before or when that nine o’clock notification came through, we could have been even more proactive because as I said before, every hour during these crises matters.
  • 1:34:00 Mayor Kim Carr: The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve was spared. The Talbert Marsh does have oil damage and again looking back, if we could have had maybe a few more hours notice, we probably could have mitigated that damage even more than what we did.
  • 1:43:17 Brian Nowicki: Like all of you, we at the Center for Biological Diversity are heartbroken by every oil and seabird and are alarmed at the miles of marshes and coastline that will be poisoned for years by this bill. We’re angry that yet again, the oil industry has proven its inability to contain its toxic pollution. The structure of pipeline funding to beach proves yet again, that every piece of fossil fuel infrastructure is yet another disaster waiting to happen. And there is a lot of that infrastructure in California. It’s increasingly old, outdated in disrepair and poorly located, like the 40 year old pipeline that gave us this most recent spill, all of which makes it increasingly dangerous. Looking beyond the nine oil platforms and islands in state water, there are 23 platforms in federal waters off California. But the fact that those 23 platforms are a little farther from shore should not give us much comfort. First, because oil spills from those operations still end up in our water, our beaches and our wildlife. But also as we’ve heard today, further from shore also means longer stretches of aging and dangerously vulnerable infrastructure, like the 17 mile long pipeline we’re discussing today are clean, reliable federal regulations to protect us from oil spills in federal waters. Federal regulators continue to prove that they are perfectly willing to allow those platforms to continue operating to the last drop of oil despite the mounting dangers of decaying infrastructure well beyond its intended lifespan, outdated drilling plans, numerous violations and insufficient bonds to pay for decommissioning.
  • 1:45:15 Brian Nowicki: But I want to be clear that this is not a problem unique to offshore platforms. At the exact same time that 10s of thousands of gallons of oil were rolling up onto beaches and marshes in Orange County, there was an oil spill in Kern County that is now approaching 5 million gallons of fluid, a mixture of crude oil, toxic wastewater, that includes 600,000 gallons of crude. In fact, in just the last few years, there have been many oil spills in California greater than the spill off Huntington Beach. In the Cymric field alone there were three huge spills in 2019 at 550,000 gallons, 836,000 and 1.2 million gallons respectively. 159,000 in Midway in 2019, 250,000 at McKittrick in 2020. There is another ongoing spill at a separator plant in Cymric that has been leaking since 2003 and has reportedly released as much as 84 million gallons of fluid to date. Now these numbers reflect total combined volumes of crude and produced water and mud, which constitute a toxic mix. As state agencies have testified before this legislature in the past, these dangerous onshore oil operations have contaminated groundwater, land, and wildlife.
  • 1:46:32 Brian Nowicki: After more than 150 years of the oil industry drilling at will in California, the oil is gone and the bottom of the barrel that’s left is harder and more dangerous to extract. There’s also some of the most carbon polluting crude in the world. With the easy stuff taken, the oil industry is in decline in California, with production down 68% since 1985. The only question is how much more damage will this dying industry do on its way out?
  • 1:49:10 Pete Stauffer: Now with the oil deposit seen as far south as the Mexico border, there are concerns that San Diego wetlands are also being impacted. Moreover, while birds, fish and marine mammals have been the most visibly impacted, the full scale of the ecological damage will take some time to become clear. In the week since the spill event, the oil slick has transformed into an incalculable number of tar balls in the ocean, while tar balls typically float, they can also find their way into underwater sediment or near shore habitats where their impacts on ecological health and wildlife may persist for years or even decades.
  • 1:52:51 Pete Stauffer: According to the federal government there have been at least 44 oil spills since 1969 that have each released more than 10,000 barrels of oil into US waters
  • 2:02:36 Mayor Kim Carr: Just to give you an idea of how much TOT we do receive in Huntington Beach, we receive about $16 million a year. We don’t receive anything from those offshore platforms, nothing. And as far as the drilling that we currently have here in Huntington Beach, it’s less than $700,000 a year.
  • 2:05:54 Brian Nowicki: What I can’t say though, for sure is that it’s going to take longer than one season to see what the full impacts are to the local wildlife. And of course, it is wetlands and marshes that often are the most difficult and take the longest to recover from the sorts of impacts.
  • 2:21:11 Jennifer Lucchesi: In 1921, the legislature created the first tidelands oil and gas leasing program. The existing offshore leases the commission is responsible for managing today were issued over a 30 year period between 1938 and 1968. Importantly, I want to highlight a specific act in 1995. The Cunningham shell Act, which serves as a foundational law for the existing legacy oil and gas leases the commission currently manages. Importantly, this Act required the commission to issue oil and gas leases for term not based on years, but for so long as oil and gas is produced in paying quantities. Essentially, this means that Alessi can produce oil and gas pursuant to their state lease indefinitely as long as it is economic for them to do so.
  • 2:58:13 Jennifer Lucchesi: For pipelines that are solely within state waters and under lease with the State Lands Commission, we require the pipelines to be externally and internally inspected annually. And we have engineers on staff that review those inspections and consult with the fire marshal as well with our federal partners on any type of remedial action that needs to happen based on the results of those inspections. For those pipelines that cross both federal and state waters our authority is more limited because the federal government’s regulatory authority takes precedence. And PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) is the primary federal agency that regulates those interstate pipelines. They require inspections externally and internally every two years. And that’s what this pipeline at issue was subjected to, the platform Elly pipeline.
  • 03:01:20 Senator Dave Min: Let’s say you have a pipe and the lease term ends. What powers do you have? What are the considerations you have to follow either statutory or contractually to renew those permits, issue a new permit? Or alternatively, do you have any leeway contractually, statutorily to end those permits prematurely and say, you know, we don’t think that, you know, the upkeep is appropriate, you’re violating certain provisions, we’re just gonna take away your permit prematurely. Do you have any leeway like that? So I’m just trying to get a sense of your flexibility, both in issuing new right of way permits, but also yanking away existing permits.
    Jennifer Lucchesi: Certainly. So I can give an example of our lease compliance and enforcement actions most recently, with a pipeline that served platforms Hogan and Houchin in the Santa Barbara Channel. Those are two federal platforms in federal waters, that pipeline that served those platforms did cross into state waters and connected on shore. That pipeline lessee of ours was not compliant with our lease terms and the commission took action to terminate those leases based on non compliance and default in breach of the lease terms. And essentially, that did terminate production on those two federal platforms. And they are part of the eight federal platforms that BOEM just announced they were going to be looking at as part of a programmatic EIS for decommissioning. The Commission does not have the authority to unilaterally terminate an existing valid lease absent any evidence of a breach or non compliance


House Committee On Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Subcommittee
October 18, 2021


Dr. Michael H. Ziccardi
Director, Oiled Wildlife Care Network
Executive Director, One Health Institute, School of Veterinary Medicine, UC Davis
Scott Breneman
Commercial Fishing, Retail Market, and Restaurant Owner Newport Beach, CA
Vipe Desai
Founding Member, Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast
Dr. David L. Valentine
Norris Presidential Chair, Earth Science Professor of Marine Science, UC Santa Barbara


  • 15:44 Rep. Katie Porter: As of October 10, workers had recovered 250,000 pounds of oily debris and 14 barrels full of tar balls from the Orange County shorelines. That is a small fraction, though, of the oil that was released, most of which is being distributed in the ocean, making its way into the food chain or falling to the ocean floor. Some of that oil is now heading south. And we will not learn the long term consequences on the environment for many years to come.
  • 17:39 Rep. Katie Porter: The witnesses here with us today will reveal a different kind of subsidy for oil and gas companies, an involuntary subsidy that occurs when the community bears the costs of oil drilling’s pollution. When a locally owned business like Mr Brennaman that has been in the family for four generations loses tens of thousands of dollars because of the leak. That’s his subsidies to oil and gas. When a hotel loses its bookings overnight. That’s its subsidy for oil and gas. When the fragile decades-long effort to recover a species under the Endangered Species Act is finally showing progress, but an oil spill puts it all at risk. That’s a cost of oil and gas to these subsidies and so many others are the reasons that oil wells like the ones behind this leak are still active. Getting rid of the subsidies is the first step to get rid of the problem.
  • 27:52 Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA): We know that the spill was not reported by the responsible oil company until the next day, despite the company’s knowledge. We also know that Orange County residents recognize that there was a problem in part due to the smell caused by this bill and actually reported it before the oil company did so, clearly something wrong with that.
  • 28:35 Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA): In my congressional district, which is just the south of here, the spill shutdown businesses and beaches in Dana Point in San Clemente. Tarballs that are likely caused by the spill have also been found as far south in my district as Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas and Del Mar in San Diego County.
  • 29:03 Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA): It’ll come as no surprise that more than $2 billion in wages and $4 billion in gross domestic product are generated by Orange County’s ocean and marine economy, including tourism. So we have a lot to lose every time there’s a spill, not just to our beaches but to our economy.
  • 39:30 Dr. Michael H. Ziccardi: In Birds, the primary issue we are concerned mostly about are the acute effects due to hypothermia. If you think of feathers almost as a dry suit in animals, if oil gets on that dry suit, it creates a hole that allows cold water to seep next to the skin. Birds can get very cold in the environment and start to waste away, they have to come ashore to stay warm, but they can no longer eat. So these birds actually can waste away in a matter of days unless proactive capture occurs. There can also be chronic effects in animals as well due to printing of oil off of the feathers or ingestion in their food items. Those chronic effects can include, in essence, effects on every organ system in an animal’s body from reproductive effects liver, kidney, respiratory tracts, depending on the dose and the exposure and the toxin itself.
  • 42:50 Scott Breneman: We were fishing on Friday, October 1, and we were coming in the harbor and I detected a distinct odor of oil and it was about midnight we’re heading in. Kind of search around the boat. I thought maybe it was a spill on the boat or a hose broke. I went in the engine room, searched all the hatches where I keep all my extra fluids and everything, didn’t find anything. Come the next day the press released that there was an actual oil spill, and my fish sales and my fish market, once that was released, they dropped drastically down, 90% this past few weeks since it was released. I’ve seen the same effect — my family’s been fishing for four generations and in the 90s my dad went through the oil spill that was off Seal Beach, in our fish market, the same exact response from the public scared, worried the products contaminated. A huge ripple effect all the way up to the wholesalers I deal with outside of Orange County there. They had concerns from their customers, their restaurants. And to rebuild that business when it happened in the 90s, I watched my dad struggle for months to get back to back to where it was and it’s…I’m seeing the same exact thing happen here. A couple of days after the oil spill they had closed Newport Harbor. And so my boat was actually trapped inside of the harbor so I wasn’t even able to go service my accounts. And it’s just been, to tell you the truth, a very difficult couple of weeks and I’m not sure how long this is going to last. I’m not sure how the public’s going to respond to it long term if there’s still going to have some fear that the fish is contaminated.
  • 46:20 Vipe Desai: In fact between 2007 and 2018 there were over 7000 oil spills in federal waters, an average of about two every day.
  • 46:50 Vipe Desai: The first impact came from the much anticipated Pacific Air Show. As oil began to wash ashore, beaches were deemed unsafe for activity. On Saturday October 2nd, 1.5 million visitors saw the show from Huntington Beach, but the show’s triumphant conclusion on Sunday was cancelled with little fanfare. Cancellations hit hotels and resorts almost immediately and their surrounding retail and restaurants suffered. Wing Lam, co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish tacos, informed me that the Saturday before the oil spill felt like a busy summer day. But the following day, once word got out about the spill, it was a ghost town. In addition, as the spill moved south, their locations in Laguna Beach and San Clemente started to feel the impacts. Bobby Abdel, owner of Jack’s Surfboards, had a similarly bleak weekend. He told me that once the oil spill was announced customer traffic plummeted. Their stores are facing a stockpile of unsold inventory from the US Open of Surfing and the Pacific Air Show. All nine of Jack’s Surfboards locations were impacted in some form or another because of the spill. Later in the week, I received a call from a colleague, Wendy Marshall, a full time hard working mother of two who shared with me that her upcoming Airbnb reservations, a form of income to help her offset college tuition costs for her children, had mostly been cancelled. From Dana Point though dolphin and whale capital of the world and the first whale Heritage Site in the Americas. Giselle Anderson from local business Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari shared losses from trips and bookings into November could be down as much as 74% because of the oil spill.
  • 52:15 Dr. David L. Valentine: I want to invoke my privilege as a university professor to start with a little bit of a history lesson. Many people think that the largest spill in US history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This is not correct. The largest spill in US history occurred in California. It was not the October 2021 spill that we’re here to talk about today. Nor was it the 2015 refugio beach pipeline rupture on the gaviota coast. It was not the 2007 Cosco, Busan spill and San Francisco Bay. And it was not the 1997 platform Irene pipeline rupture of Annenberg Air Force Base. It was not the 1990 American traders spill off the coast of Huntington Beach. It was not the 1969 platform, an oil spill off of Santa Barbara, the one that helped spawn the environmental movement. Nor was it the sinking of the SS Montebello, an oil freighter that was hit by a Japanese torpedo off the coast of Cambria and World War Two. It was called the Lakeview Gusher. It occurred in Kern County, and it’s estimated to have released around 380 million gallons of oil over an 18 month period starting in 1910. And I tell you this bit of California history because it punctuates five important points. First, oil production carries inherent risk. Second, California has suffered more than its fair share of spills. Third, the size of a spill is only one factor in determining its impact. Fourth, responsiveness and context matter. And fifth, every spill is different and that includes the impacts.
  • 54:24 Dr. David L. Valentine: For the current spill, I have honed in on three key modes of exposure that concern me most: floating oil slicks that can impact organisms living at or near the sea surface, coastline areas such as wetlands where oil can accumulate and persist, and the sea floor, where oil can easily hide from view but may still pose longer term risks. Among these three, the fate of impacts of submerged oil is especially relevant to California, is the least well understood, and requires additional research effort.
  • 59:40 Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA): So recently I asked the Department of Interior about the specific kinds of subsidies that Beta Operating received. Beta is a subsidiary of Amplify Energy, and that’s the company that owns the platforms and the pipelines that leaked off our coast. It turns out that they got nearly $20 million from the federal government, specifically because the oil wells are at the end of their lives and are not producing much oil, which makes them less profitable. So taxpayers are being asked to pay to encourage oil production in the Pacific Ocean by giving oil companies millions of dollars to do it.
  • 1:00:39 Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA): Beta operating is in line to get another $11 million to drill for new wells off the coast because that $11 million is needed, in their words, “to make production economic.” So taxpayers are being asked to pay Beta to drill new wells. That means wells that would otherwise not be drilled without our taxpayer subsidy.
  • 01:02:52 Dr. Michael H. Ziccardi: What we have found, during and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is that dolphins can be significantly impacted by oil, primarily through inhalation of the fumes at the surface and ingestion of the oil substances themselves. What we found is that it affects their immune system, it affects their reproductive tract, and it affects their gastrointestinal tract, so very significant changes. And that’s information that is just now starting to come out in the publications from the Deepwater Horizon incident.
  • 1:06:51 Vipe Desai: Had this oil spill moved north, it would have impacted two of the busiest ports in the nation, which account for billions of dollars of goods flowing in and out of both ports of LA and Long Beach. And that would have had an even larger impact to other communities across the US.
  • 1:08:21 Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA): The annual oil production off the coast of California is about 1/3 of what our nation produces in a single day. So it really is a drop in the bucket when you consider the overwhelming potential for economic damage for environmental damage, the risks simply aren’t worth it.
  • 1:09:34 Vipe Desai: California’s ocean economy generates $54.3 billion in revenue and supports 654,000 jobs.
  • 1:25:15 Dr. David L. Valentine: In Orange County, the areas that I would look at most closely as being especially vulnerable on the environmental side would be the wetland environments. Places like Talbert Marsh where oil can surge in with the tide. And it can get trapped in those environments and it can get stuck and it won’t come back out when the tide recedes. Those are especially vulnerable because they’re these rich, diverse ecosystems. They provide a whole host of different services, whether it’s flyways, or fisheries, or in keeping the nutrient levels moderated in coastal waters. And that oil can stick there and it can have a long term impact. And furthermore, cleanup in those cases can be very difficult because getting into a marsh and trying to clean it up manually can cause as much damage as oil can cause.
  • 1:26:24 Dr. David L. Valentine: And then the other environment that I worry a lot about is the environment we can’t see, that is what’s going on under the surface of the ocean. And in that case, we can have oil that comes ashore and then gets pulled back offshore but is now denser because it’s accumulated sand and other mineral matter. And that can be sticking around in the coastal ocean. We don’t really understand how much of that there is or exactly where it goes. And that concerns me.
  • 1:29:18 Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA): But Dr. Valentine, how concerned Do you think California should be that companies that own the offshore platforms, wells and pipelines might go bankrupt and pass decommissioning costs on to taxpayers?
    Dr. David L. Valentine: I think that we need to be very concerned. And this is not just a hypothetical, this is already happening. There are two instances that I can tell you about that I’ve been involved with personally. The first stems from the pipeline 901 rupture, also known as the Refugio, a big oil spill that happened in 2015. When that pipeline ruptured, it prevented oil from being further produced from platform Holley, off the coast of Santa Barbara just a few miles from my home. That platform when it was completely shut in, all 30 wells, was unable to produce any oil and the company, a small operator, went bankrupt. And then shortly thereafter, they went bankrupt again. And this time, they just gave up and they did something called quit claiming their lease back to the state of California. Meaning that the plugin abandonment and property commissioning fell into the lap of the State of California in that case, and that is an ongoing, ongoing saga. The second example I would give you is in Summerland. In 1896, the first offshore oil wells in this country were drilled from piers in Summerland. Those have been leaking over the years. And as recently as last year, there were three leaky oil wells coming up in Summerland. The state of California has found money to try alternative plug in abandonment strategies because anything traditional is not going to work on something that is 125 some odd years old. So that would be the second example where this is now falling into the taxpayers lap yet again.


House Committee on Natural Resources: Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
October 14, 2021


Dr. Donald Boesch
Professor and President Emeritus, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
Dr. Greg Stunz
Endowed Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health, and Professor of Marine Biology Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies Texas A&M University
Robert Schuwerk
Executive Director, North America Office Carbon Tracker Initiative
Ms. Jacqueline Savitz
Chief Policy Officer, Oceana


  • 10:34 Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN): I can certainly provide a summary of things that will help keep energy prices down: issue onshore and offshore lease sales; reinstate the Presidential permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline; renew our commitment to exporting American energy, instead of importing foreign energy; reform a broken permitting process; and stop burdening domestic producers.
  • 16:08 Dr. Donald Boesch: Oil and gas production from wells in less than 1000 feet of water declined as fuels discovered in the 80s and even earlier were depleted. Crude oil production in these relatively shallow waters declined by over 90% both in the Gulf and and in Southern California. Natural gas production in the OCS, which mainly came from the shallow water wells, declined by 80%. Offshore fossil energy production is now dominated in the deep water off the Gulf of Mexico, up to 7500 feet deep. Deepwater production grew by 38% just over the last 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
  • 17:05 Dr. Donald Boesch: Since the lifting of the crude oil export ban in 2016, last year there was 78% more crude oil exported from Gulf terminals, exported overseas, than actually produced in the US OCS and three times as much natural gas exported, than produced offshore.
  • 18:06 Dr. Donald Boesch: So, the depletion of shallow water gas has left this legacy of old wells and declining resources and the infrastructure requires decommissioning and removal. Much of this infrastructure is not operated by the original leaseholders, but by smaller companies with lesser assets and technical and operational capacity.
  • 18:40 Dr. Donald Boesch: Off Southern California there are 23 platforms in federal waters, eight of which are soon facing decommissioning. In the Gulf, on the other hand, there are 18,162 platforms and about 1000 of them will probably be decommissioned within this decade.
  • 19:46 Dr. Donald Boesch: According to the GAO, as you pointed out, there are 600 miles of active pipelines in federal waters of the Gulf, and 18,000 miles of abandoned plant pipelines. The GAO found the Department of the Interior lacks a robust process for addressing the environmental and safety risk and ensuring clean up and burial standards are met. And also monitoring the long term fate of these, these pipelines.
  • 20:54 Dr. Donald Boesch: At recent rates of production of oil and gas, the Gulf’s crude oil oil reserves will be exhausted in only six or seven years. That is the proven reserves. Even with the undiscovered and economically recoverable oil that BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) estimates in the central and western Gulf, we would run out of oil about mid century. So unless some miracle allows us to capture all of the greenhouse gases that would be released, we really can’t do that and achieve net zero emissions, whether it be by resource depletion, governmental or corporate policy, or investor and stockholder decisions. Offshore oil and gas production is likely to see it see a steep decline. So the greenhouse gas emissions pathway that we follow and how we deal with the legacy and remaining infrastructure will both play out over the next decade or two.
  • 25:16 Dr. Greg Stuntz: In fact, these decades old structures hold tremendous amounts of fish biomass and our major economic drivers. A central question is, how do these structures perform in relation to mother nature or natural habitat and I’m pleased to report that in every parameter we use to measure that success. These artificial reefs produce at least as well are often better than the natural habitat. We observe higher densities of fish, faster growth and even similar output. Thus, by all measures, these data show artificial reefs are functioning at least equivalent on a per capita basis to enhance our marine resources.
  • 28:54 Rob Schuwerk: When a company installs a platform and drills well, it creates an ARO, an obligation to reclaim that infrastructure when production ends. This costs money. But companies aren’t required to get financial assurance for the full estimated costs today. Money to plug in active wells today comes from cash flows from oil and gas production. But what happens when that stops? The International Energy Agency sees peak oil and gas demand as early as 2025. This will make it harder to pay for decommissioning from future cash flows. Decommissioning is costly. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) data indicate that offshore AROs could range from $35 to over $50 billion while financial assurance requirements are about $3.47 billion. That is less than 10% of expected liability. The GAO believes these figures may actually underestimate the true costs of retiring the remaining deepwater infrastructure.
  • 30:05 Rob Schuwerk: Only about a third of the unplug wells in the Gulf of Mexico have shown any production in the last 12 months. Why haven’t the other two thirds already been retired? Because of uncertainty as to when to close and poor incentives. Infrastructure should be decommissioned when it’s no longer useful. But the regulator has difficulty making that determination. This uncertainty explains why BSEE waits five years after a well becomes inactive to deem it no longer useful for operations with years more allowed for decommissioning. These delays increase the risk that operators will become unable to pay or simply disappear. We’ve seen this already with a variety of companies including Amplify Energy’s predecessor Beta Dinoco off California and Fieldwood recently with Mexico.
  • 30:55 Rob Schuwerk: There’s also a problem of misaligned economic incentives. As it is virtually costless to keep wells unplugged, companies have no incentive to timely plug them. AROs are like an unsecured, interest free balloon loan from the government with no date of maturity. There’s little incentive to save for repayment because operators bear no carrying cost and no risk in the case of default. If the ARO loan carried interest payments commensurate with the underlying non performance risk, producers would be incentivized to decommission non economic assets. The solution is simple, require financial assurance equivalent to the full cost of carrying out all decommissioning obligations. This could take the form of a surety bond, a sinking fund or some other form of restricted cash equivalent. If wells are still economic to operate, considering the carrying cost of financial assurance, the operator will continue production, if not they’ll plug. In either case, the public is protected from these costs.
  • 32:11 Rob Schuwerk: A key risk here is operator bankruptcy that causes liabilities to be passed on to others. And we could see this in the recent Fieldwood bankruptcy. Fieldwood was formed in 2012 and in 2013 acquired shallow water properties from Apache Corporation. It went through chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, and then undeterred, acquired additional deepwater platforms from Noble Energy. Fieldwood returned to bankruptcy in 2020. It characterized the decommissioning costs it shared with Apache as among the company’s most significant liabilities. The bankruptcy plan created new companies to receive and decommission certain idle offshore assets. If they failed, prior operators and lessors would have to pay. Several large oil and gas companies objected to this proposal. They were concerned that if Fieldwood couldn’t pay they would. Ultimately the plan was proved. The case illustrates a few key dynamics. First, if bankrupt companies cannot pay, others, including taxpayers, will. How much of the possibly $50 billion in offshore decommissioning liability is held by companies that are only a dragged anchor, a hurricane a leaking pipeline or oil price shock away from default? And second, as detailed in my written testimony, private companies who face liability risks understand them better than the government does. When they transfer wells, they demand financial protections that are in fact greater than what the government requires today.
  • 36:02 Jacqueline Savitz: Supplemental bonds are necessary to protect taxpayers from the risk of spills but BOEM is overusing the waiver provisions that allow a financial strength test to waive requirements for supplemental bonds. BOEM regulations require that lessees furnish a relatively small general bond and while BOEM has discretion to acquire supplemental bonds, it generally waives those. General bonds that lessees are required to furnish don’t come close to covering the cost of decommissioning and haven’t been updated since 1993. Since that year, the cost of decommissioning has gone up in part because development has moved into deeper waters, only about 10% of offshore oil production in the Gulf was in deepwater in 1993. But by 2014, that figure rose to 80%. Regulations need to be updated to ensure the federal government and taxpayers are not left picking up the tab on decommissioning. According to GAO, only 8% of decommissioning liabilities in the Gulf of Mexico were covered by bonds or other financial assurance mechanisms, with the other 92% waived or simply unaccounted for.
  • 38:06 Jacqueline Savitz: BSEE does not conduct oversight over decommissioning activities underway and it does not inspect decommissioned pipelines so the Bureau can’t ensure that the industry has complied with required environmental mitigation.
  • 38:17 Jacqueline Savitz: Leak detection technologies that the oil and gas industry touts as safer have not been proven to prevent major leaks. All pipelines in the Pacific region are reportedly equipped with advanced leak detection equipment. Though two weeks ago we saw exactly what can happen even with the so-called “Best Technology.”
  • 42:00 Dr. Donald Boesch: In Hurricane Ida, all of a sudden appeared an oil slick, and it lasted for several days. And apparently it was traced to an abandoned pipeline that had not been fully cleared of all the residual oil in it so that all that oil leaked out during that incident.
  • 47:59 Dr. Donald Boesch: One of the challenges though, is that this older infrastructure is not operating in the same standards and with the same capacity of those of the major oil companies that have to do that. So for example, when I noted that they detected this methane being leaked, they didn’t detect it from the new offshore deepwater platforms which have all the right technology. It’s in the older infrastructure that they’re seeing.
  • 54:14 Rob Schuwerk: There’s actually one thing that exists offshore, joint and several liability, that only exists in certain jurisdictions onshore. So in some ways the situation onshore is worse. Because in some states like California you can go after prior operators if the current operator cannot pay, but in many jurisdictions you cannot. And our research has found that there is about $280 billion in onshore liability, and somewhere around 1% of that is covered by financial assurance bonds so, there is definitely an issue onshore rather than offshore.
  • 55:04 Rob Schuwerk: The issue is just really giving them a financial incentive to be able to decommission. And that means they have to confront the cost of decommissioning and internalize that into their decision on whether continuing to produce from a well is economic or not. And so that means they need to have some kind of financial insurance in place that represents the actual cost. That could be a surety bond where they go to an insurer that acts as a guarantor for that amount. It could be a sinking fund, like we have in the context of nuclear where they go start putting money aside at the beginning, and it grows over time to be sufficient to plug the well at the end of its useful life. And there could be other forms of restricted cash that they maintain on the balance sheet for the benefit of these liabilities.
  • 1:15:38 Jacqueline Savitz: Remember, there is no shortage of offshore oil and gas opportunity for the oil industry. The oil industry is sitting on so many, nearly 8.5 million acres of unused or non producing leases, 75% of the total lease acreage in public waters. They’re sitting on it and not using it. So even if we ended all new leasing, it would not end offshore production.
  • 1:22:35 Rob Schuwerk: Typically what we’ll see as well to do companies will transfer these assets into other entities that have less financial means and wherewithal to actually conduct the cleanup.
    Rep. Katie Porter: So they’re moving once they’ve taken the money, they’ve made the profit, then they’re giving away they’re basically transferring away the unprofitable, difficult, expensive part of this, which is the decommissioning portion. And they’re transferring that. Are they transferring that to big healthy companies?
    Rob Schuwerk: No, often they’re transferring it to companies that didn’t exist even just prior to the transfer.
    Rep. Katie Porter: You mean a shell company?
    Rob Schuwerk: Yes.
    Rep. Katie Porter: Like an entity created just for the purpose of pushing off the cost of doing business so that you don’t have to pay it even though you’ve got all the upside. Are you saying that this is what oil and gas companies do?
    Rob Schuwerk: We’ve seen this, yes.
    Rep. Katie Porter: And how does the law facilitate this?
    Rob Schuwerk: Well, I suppose on a couple of levels. On the one hand, there’s very little oversight of the transfer. And so there’s very little restriction from a regulatory standpoint, this is true, offshore and also onshore. So we see this behavior in both places. And then secondary to that there are actions that companies can take in bankruptcy that can effectively pass these liabilities on to taxpayers eventually and so some of it is to be able to use that event, the new company goes bankrupt.
  • 1:25:01 Rob Schuwerk: Certainly no private actor would do what the federal government does, which is not have a security for these risks.


House Committee on Natural Resources: Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
May 19, 2021


Laura Zachary
Co-Director, Apogee Economics & Policy
Tim Stretton
Policy Analyst, Project on Government Oversight (POGO)


  • 27:10 Laura Zachary: There have long been calls for fiscal reforms to the federal oil and gas program. Compared to how states managed oil and gas leasing, the federal government forgoes at least a third of the revenue that could have been captured for taxpayers
  • 27:25 Laura Zachary: On January 27 of this year, the Biden administration signed Executive Order 14008 that pauses issuing new federal oil and gas leases. And importantly, the language implies a temporary pause, only on issuing new leases, not on issuing drilling permits. This is a critical distinction for what the impacts of a pause could be. Very importantly, federal permitting data confirms that to date, there has been no pause on issuing drilling permits for both onshore and offshore. And in fact, since the pause began, Department of Interior has approved drilling permits at rates in line with past administrations.
  • 37:08 Tim Stretton: Because taxpayers own resources such as oil and gas that are extracted from public lands, the government is legally required to collect royalties for the resources produced from leases on these lands. Project on Government Oversight’s investigations into the federal government’s oversight of the oil, gas and mining industries have uncovered widespread corruption that allows industry to cheat U.S. taxpayers out of billions of dollars worth of potential income. Given the amount of money at stake and the oil and gas industry’s history of deliberately concealing the value of the resources they’ve extracted with the intent of underpaying royalties, the government should be particularly vigilant in ensuring companies pay their fair share for the resources they extract.
  • 46:28 Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR): We are here today for the majority’s attempt, which I believe is more of a publicity stunt to criticize the oil and gas industry than to talk about real facts and data. The playbook is a simple one: recycled talking points to vilify the industry and to paint a distorted picture of so-called good versus evil. I’m sure that we’ll hear more about corporate subsidies that aren’t. We’ll hear about unfair royalty rates that aren’t and we’ll hear many other meme worthy talking points that fail the logic test.
  • 47:35_ Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR): What we’re -really talking about today is an industry that provides reliable and affordable energy to our nation. This isan industry that contributes to almost 10 million jobs and plays a vital role in our daily lives. In fact, we cannot conduct virtual hearings like this without the fossil fuel industry. And of course, when myself and my colleagues travel to Washington, DC, we rely on this industry to fly or to drive here.
  • 49:33 Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR): But they ignore the real world consequences of demonizing this industry. The results are devastating job loss and the loss of public education funding to name just a few.
  • 54:05 Rep. Pete Stauber (R-MN): I also had a roundtable discussion and learned how New Mexico schools received nearly $1.4 billion in funding from oil and gas just last year.
  • 55:08 Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA): Mr. Stretton, how long has your organization been conducting oversight of oil and gas production on federal lands?
    Tim Stretton: For decades, I mean, we started doing this work in the early 90s. And actually, some of our earliest work in the space was uncovering in excess of a billion dollars in unpaid royalties to your home state of California.
    Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA): And you mentioned, what are some of the patterns? You’ve been doing this for decades? What are some of the patterns that you observe over time?
    Tim Stretton: The oil and gas industry working with each other to really undervalue the resources they were selling, fraudulently telling the government the value of those resources, which left billions of dollars in unpaid revenue going to the federal government.
  • 1:01:09 Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ): There are some people who have made environmentalism a religion. Rather than focus on solutions that can make lives better for people, some would prefer to vilify an industry that provides immeasurable benefits to people’s livelihood in the function of modern day society.
  • 1:04:21 Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ): The other side looks at globalism, you know this environmental movement globally. So it makes more sense to me at least and folks I come from that we produce it cleaner more efficiently than anybody else in the world. And so that geopolitical application, if you’re an environmentalist, you would want more American clean oil and gas out there versus Russian dirty or Chinese dirty gas.
  • 02:37:23 Rep. Blake Moore (R-UT): In January state education superintendents in Wyoming, Miami, North Dakota, Alaska, and Utah submitted a letter to President Biden outlining their concerns with the administration’s oil and gas ban which has reduced funding used to educate our rising generation.
  • 02:43:35 Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM): I’m glad to be able to highlight the true success story of the oil and gas industry in my home state of New Mexico. To put it simply, the oil and gas industry is the economic backbone of New Mexico and has been for decades. The industry employs 134,000 People statewide and provides over a billion dollars each year to fund our public education.
  • 02:44:30 Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-NM): Many of my Democratic colleagues have stated that green energy jobs can replace the loss of traditional energy jobs, like the 134,000 Oil and Gas jobs in my state. Many also say that we need to be transitioning to a completely carbon free energy grid. Can you tell me and the committee why both of those ideas are completely fantasy?

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