California Oil Spill Exposes Newsom-Biden Failures on Drilling

It's long past time for our leaders—in Washington and in Sacramento—to act as though we are facing an existential crisis.

Joe Sanberg*
Republished from Common Dreams, October 14, 2021, under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)/.

Everybody knows Orange County by its postcard-perfect beaches. Those of us born and raised in the OC, take immense pride in—and feel intensely protective of—the natural beauty of our shores. As a kid, I didn't have much, but I had the beach.

So, when more than 400,000 gallons of crude oil is spilled in our ocean, our coastline is strewn with the bodies of fish and birds, and the health of our wetlands is put in mortal jeopardy … we get mad.

A spill like that shouldn't surprise anyone. It's not as if Amplify Energy Corp.—the owner of the oil operation responsible for the spill—was a rogue actor. Despite its long record of compliance warnings and recent bankruptcy filings, the company operated with the full, permitted approval of the government.

It's nice that Gavin Newsom conceded this week that he will not support new offshore oil drilling in California. But where was he the last few years, when environmental advocates sounded the alarm about the practice? The sad answer: he was issuing a whopping 138 offshore permits. 

Gov. Newsom said that the spill was "a reminder of the enormous cost fossil fuels have on our communities and the environment." But we didn't need that reminder. We've all watched the degradation of our coastline, the pollution of our water, the clouding of our skies with smog. 

My current home, Los Angeles, hosts the largest urban oil field in the country. Thousands of active oil wells operate throughout the landscape—including in working class communities of color that disproportionately bear the burden of environmental injustice. These wells are often directly next to homes, uncovered, and lack reinforcement of city oil regulations. 

The result?  Kids get cancer, expectant mothers have  preterm births, seniors  choke every time they take a breath.

There is no safe way to drill for oil. Not in our oceans and not in our neighborhoods. We don't need a new study to tell us that.

One of the worst oil spills in history occurred in California in 1969, when a drilling rig platform blew out, depositing 4.2 million gallons of crude, and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals. That spill helped galvanize the modern environmental movement, when the entire country said "never again." But it did happen again, and again. 

So we should have known better. Inevitably, where we drill, oil will spill. It is only a matter of time. On top of that, after years of devastating fires, heat waves, and droughts throttling our state, climate change is a terrifying reality bearing down on us. There is no longer any doubt: our communities are in a war for survival with the fossil fuel industry.  

It's long past time for our leaders—in Washington and in Sacramento—to act as though we are facing an existential crisis.

First, Joe Biden must keep his promise to the American people on offshore oil drilling. On the campaign trail, he pledged to end new oil and gas leasing on our public lands and waters. But this Monday—just two days after the oil spill off Huntington Beach was discovered—President Biden ploughed ahead with a Trump administration plan to put more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico up for auction for oil and gas drilling. Hurricane Ida created  55 separate spills near existing drilling rigs in the Gulf, but so far the administration has not reversed course on this disastrous plan for new drilling. 

The president should pull all planned oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, as he promised. While much attention is currently being paid to Biden's infrastructure plan in Congress, a plan which includes many commendable climate proposals, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Biden alone holds the power to end federal oil and gas leasing immediately. Anything less is an abdication of his historic responsibility to act on climate. 

At the state level, we've heard plenty of rhetoric from Governor Gavin Newsom about the urgency of fighting climate change. But in reality, he has approved 9,014 separate oil and gas permits. That number should have been zero. Newsom has complete authority as the state's executive to stop issuing fossil fuel permits, and commit to a timeline for phasing out all drilling.

Newsom must also heed calls of environmental justice advocates, who are demanding a bare minimum of 2500 foot setbacks of oil and gas drilling from people's homes. Polls show that  79% of Californians  approve of oil and gas setbacks. There is no reason for Newsom to keep dragging his feet, unless he considers the interests of Big Oil greater than the public good. 

The sad truth is, even these seismic shifts in climate policy won't undo the warming that's already baked into our climate, or all the contamination of our skies and seas. 

How many more California treasures must be destroyed for us to finally understand: there are no safe pipelines. 

* Joe Sanberg  is a progressive entrepreneur, business leader, and policymaker on a mission to end poverty. He founded CalEIT4Me, which helps millions of low-income California families claim the state and federal Earned Income Tax Credits, putting more than $4 billion back in their pockets. He is the co-founder of Aspiration, an online provider of socially conscious financial services.

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