oiled pelican, photo: Greenpeace

Californians Know Oil and Water Doesn’t Mix

California is largely defined by its dramatic coastline and the biologically rich waters that invite large numbers of whales, sea lions and surfers alike. But California’s coastal geography also invites thousands of ships each year carrying everything from crude oil to Nike tennis shoes to our busy ports in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles/Long Beach Complex. And all those ships run on giant tanks filled with oil which, when spilled, can devastate the marine environment and, in turn, the coastal economy that drives California.

This week Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1112, the Oil Spill Preparedness Act and, in doing so, ensured that California will have the resources and programs needed to prevent and respond to oil spills as best we can, at least temporarily. Under the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Act enacted after the famously devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Californians are due the “best achievable protection” available from oil spills but that was not happening. This bill, authored by Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D – Marin), and sponsored by San Francisco based environmental non-profit Pacific Environment, was introduced in response to a bunkering spill in San Francisco Bay in late October, 2009.

As gateways for global commerce, San Francisco Bay and the L.A. and Long Beach Harbors are used for more than 6,000 oil transfer operations—known as bunkering and lightering—each year, effectively creating a daily threat of oil spills in these waters. In 2010, more than 400 million barrels of oil were transferred across the State’s open waters to bunker and lighter ships—filling their giant tanks with fuel or offloading crude oil cargo. In most cases these operations, many involving high volume transfers of toxic oil products, are conducted safely and without incident; however, mechanical failures and human errors do occur, and oil spills happen. In October 2009, the Dubai Star tanker spilled over 400 of gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay, killing birds and wildlife, closing fisheries, and contaminating sensitive habitat. The spill cost millions of dollars to clean up. Nearly a year later, on the infamous November 7th anniversary of the Cosco Busan accident and spill, another bunkering accident—on the DaTang 18 cargo ship—dumped more than a thousand gallons of crude oil into the Long Beach harbor in the dark of night.

Cosco Busan, San Francisco Bay Photo:NOAA

California's Coasts Are Safer For Now - Thanks to AB 1112

With AB 1112 signed into law the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) will enact regulations that increase oversight and monitoring of those daily oil spill threats laying and waiting in our blue-water front yard. The bill requires OSPR to conduct a risk assessment of vessels engaged in bunkering and lightering operations to determine the highest risk transfers, and then implement a comprehensive risk-based monitoring program to provide for the “best achievable protection” during bunkering and lightering operations.

The bill also includes a requirement for the State Lands Commission to report to Congress on the status of safety mechanisms on the oil rigs off the coast of Santa Barbara. If we learn nothing else from the Gulf Spill we should at least be sure we have fully-redundant shut-off switches in place to prevent an uncontrollable blow-out here.

Bill Bails Out State's Strapped Programs

Significantly, and the source of strong opposition form the oil industry, this bill provides a reprieve to the State’s financially floundering oil spill prevention and response programs by adding a one and a half penny increase to the fee charged on imported oil. That per-barrel oil fee, currently set at five cents and only increased once, by one penny in 2002, since its inception in 1990, creates the oil spill fund that pays for California’s prevention and response programs.

Years of inflation and increased responsibilities to keep our programs on the cutting edge have drawn down the fund. A recent budget analysis projected nearly a $5.2 million deficient in 2012-13 and an $11.5 million deficient in 2013-14. Without increased revenue to the oil spill fund jobs and programs in place to protect California’s marine environment would be cut leaving the State increasingly vulnerable to oil spills, rather than well-protected. Sure, we need to do a better job protecting against bunkering spills and oil rig blow outs, but none of that is going to happen if we are cash-strapped and cutting back on the basics.

When a Sunset is an Ugly Thing

Still, political will to pass this bill was weak in the face of the powerful oil industry lobby. Even some Democratic Senators were not willing to vote for the bill without major concessions demanded by the oil lobby. A final amendment to the bill, bringing enough votes for its passage, was a three year sunset provision. This means that the law and all the needed revenue and policy improvements that it provides will no longer be legally required after three years time! Shameful.

For reasons this Californian cannot understand our elected leaders were more concerned about the costs to the oil industry – even knowing that the top five oil companies posted $35 billion second-quarter profits this year, more than a nine percent up-tick since 2010 – than they were about protecting us against oil spills. Most Californians did not get a 9% raise last year, and we are pouring more of our dwindling paychecks into our gas tanks while we wait for the political will to leave oil behind for cleaner, renewable fuels.

For now we can celebrate a victory for the ocean environment. Thanks to a solid effort by Assemblyman Huffman and the combined advocacy of a broad coalition of ocean conservation and fishing groups – and most especially the many thousands of letters and calls that individuals sent to our hesitant lawmakers – AB 1112 is now law and the vital California waters that support four of our nation’s 13 National Marine Sanctuaries are safer for the next three years. Then we will need to return, again, to defend the water that brings us life.