Congressmembers sound alarm over ‘expedited plans’ to restart pipeline that ruptured off Orange County – San Bernardino Sun

On World Oceans Day, four Southern California representatives joined environmental groups in speaking out against plans to let Amplify Energy use a streamlined, opaque permitting process to repair and restart use of its pipeline that burst last fall, spilling some 25,000 gallons of crude oil in waters off the coast of Huntington Beach.

Reps. Katie Porter, Mike Levin, Alan Lowenthal and Nanette Barragán – all Democrats representing portions of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties – on Wednesday shared a letter they sent to four federal agencies saying they are “alarmed” by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to let Amplify start using the 42-year-old pipeline again without conducting a full environmental review, including time for a public comment period.

“This expedited approval process is unwarranted and dangerous,” the letter reads. “This is no ordinary repair – it is a repair of a decades-old, subsea pipeline following a significant rupture and leakage. Given the threat this aging infrastructure poses to our ecologically sensitive marine resources, coastal economy, and communities, this project requires site-specific analysis before the federal government grants its approval.”

The difference between the two permitting processes is the difference between the 17-mile pipeline that sits on the ocean floor in the San Pedro Bay potentially starting to carry oil again within a couple months vs. a couple years – if at all.

Clean up crews remove oil-soaked vegetation along a boom in Talbert Marsh Wetlands in Huntington Beach on Sunday, October 3, 2021 after an oil spill from an offshore rig washed up on Huntington State Beach. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

First reports of heavy gas smells along the coast of Huntington Beach came during the afternoon of Oct. 1. The next day, officials confirmed there was a 13-inch rupture in the underwater pipeline that carried oil from an offshore production and processing platform called Elly to the Port of Long Beach.

Oil from the spill spread over 25 square miles. The leak led to canceled events and closed beaches, shuttered fisheries for weeks and harmed sensitive wildlife and habitat in an area known to host everything from humpback whales to harbor seals to sea turtles.

An investigation later determined a stretch of the San Pedro Bay Pipeline 5 miles offshore, under 160 feet of water, had shifted by 105 feet, likely after being dragged by one or more ship anchors earlier in the year. The strikes damaged the pipe’s concrete casing, which federal authorities say likely led to the spill in the fall. The full investigation is still underway.

Houston-based Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries own and operate the pipeline. The company is facing a misdemeanor negligence charge over how response to the leak was handled, while Amplify is suing two ship operators over their potential roles in damaging the pipeline.

The pipeline has been shut down since the spill, and Amplify in December installed a 30-inch-by-10-inch steel patch over the crack. But the company also has been quietly pursuing plans with the Army Corps to “permanently” fix the pipeline and start using it again under what’s called a Nationwide Permit 12, or NWP 12. The permits, which fall under the Clean Water Act, are designed to streamline the approval process for oil or natural gas pipeline activities in federal waters that have “minimal adverse effects” on the environment rather than having these projects go through full, site-specific reviews.

There’s no public database or reporting on projects covered by these general permits, and environmental groups have long opposed them for not adequately addressing impacts of the projects they cover. There is ongoing litigation over use of NWP 12s now, and a public review of the process – triggered by requests from the Biden administration – is wrapping up.

“When they use NWP 12, it almost does shield the project from public view. It doesn’t get the benefit of other eyes on it,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who in January sent notice to the Army Corps opposing use of an NWP 12 for this project. She said her organization has had to stay on top of multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to try to follow up on the process. Still, she said it’s not entirely clear where the project stands, with one staff member telling her the NWP 12 could be approved in as little as a week.

The Army Corps didn’t respond to a request for comment on the project.

Asked about concerns over the streamlined permitting process, a spokesman for Amplify sent a statement that says the company “continues to cooperate with all regulatory and permitting agencies who are investigating the January 2021 anchor strikes.” The spokesman said that to complete the investigation and hold the right sources accountable, “the pipeline sections must be removed from the seafloor and the impacted section replaced” so a full analysis can be completed.

Amplify in December asked for a green light to remove two sections of pipeline that total 282 feet, lift the damaged sections onto a barge, then lower new sections and weld them underwater to the existing pipeline. The company also proposed installing some 1,200 square feet of “concrete mats” on top of the damaged section to protect it from future anchor strikes. To do so, the company would have to use high-pressure jets to dislodge 1,200 cubic feet of sediment on the ocean floor. The entire process is estimated to take two to three months.

Both the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Coastal Commission in January raised multiple concerns with the plans. Commission leaders said they believe the project “would have a reasonably foreseeable effect on wildlife, habitat and uses of the California coastal zone,” and they requested permission to review and approve the repair plan. The federal Office for Coastal Management in April denied that request.

With permit approval looming, local Congress members got involved this week. Their June 7 letter to leaders of the Army Corps, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S Department of Commerce asked to reconsider using an NWP 12 and instead pursue full reviews under the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“We cannot allow Amplify Energy to jeopardize our ocean and beaches again by skipping key safety steps for their failed pipeline,” Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, told the Southern California News Group on Wednesday. “Given the pipeline operator’s long track record of incidents of non-compliance, it is clear they should not be allowed to skip important environmental reviews.”

If Amplify had to go through full environmental reviews, Simmonds estimates the process could take one to two years. And given the age and history of the pipeline, she and others wonder if it would pass muster.

Workers search for oil in the sand at the northern end of Huntington Beach, CA, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. A leak in an oil pipeline caused a spill off the coast of Southern California sending about 25,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, some ending up on beaches in Orange County. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Workers search for oil in the sand at the northern end of Huntington Beach, CA, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. A leak in an oil pipeline caused a spill off the coast of Southern California sending about 25,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, some ending up on beaches in Orange County. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“The infrastructure offshore is increasingly showing signs of wear and tear,” Simmonds said. The pipelines “weren’t supposed to last this long,” she noted, with life expectancies of 25 to 40 years when they were installed some 42 years ago. “Now we’re dealing with a very aging system of pipelines and platforms that unfortunately pose grave risks to our coastal environment.”

The Amplify spokesman focused on the ship operators, saying, “The San Pedro Bay Pipeline was well maintained and met federal safety requirements prior to these ships striking the pipeline.”

The debate comes as average gas prices in California on Wednesday once again set a new record-high of $6.39 a gallon, per AAA records. But with the pipeline able to carry up to 25,000 barrels per day, or 0.13% of U.S. consumption, former USC economics professor and gas price expert Charlie Cicchetti said adding this supply back into the mix is “not much but a rounding error difference.”

Eric Swanson, an economics professor at UC Irvine, agreed, saying that since the crude oil market is very much an international market, “increasing the supply of crude oil a little bit in Southern California won’t noticeably affect gas prices in Southern California.”

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