California Oil Spill

by | Oct 8, 2021

The oil spill in Southern California, very near where I live, is being used (abused) to call for anti-oil policies, including a ban on California offshore drilling. Here are my talking points on what actually happened and what the proper response is.

As a SoCal resident and beach-goer, I wanted to see my government respond to the oil spill by assessing the damage, investigating the cause, and proposing real solutions. Instead it is wildly distorting the facts and pursuing anti-oil “solutions” that will make life in CA far worse.

Last weekend, a pipeline 5 miles from the Southern CA coastline leaked over 100,000 gallons of oil, some of which reached Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach (where I live). As bad as this incident has been, our elected officials’ response has been far worse. [1]

The main damage of the spill has been 1) making some waters temporarily unswimmable/unfishable and 2) harming some wildlife, especially birds. It’s not a catastrophe: Newport Beach is already back open for swimming, and bird deaths are tiny compared to those via wind turbine. [2]

We know that long-term effects of oil spills are very limited. Oil is an organic substance that naturally leaks a lot without enduring problems. E.g., natural oil seepages in SoCal add dozens of times the oil to the ocean that the recent spill added. [3]

Instead of recognizing that this spill has done significant temporary damage, CA elected officials are treating it as a crisis that must be prevented at all costs. Local beaches are also overreacting. Laguna Beach is banning us from even going on the sand–total pseudoscience.

CA elected officials should recognize that the cause of the spill is still not understood–with one likely explanation being a pipeline rupture by an unidentified ship’s anchor. But instead of calling for careful investigation, officials are attacking the whole CA oil industry.

Instead of proposing real solutions that would cost-effectively reduce the likelihood of oil spills in the future, CA elected officials are jumping to a disastrous non-solution: banning all offshore drilling from CA–something that would cause Californians terrible damage.

Cottie Petrie-Norris, a CA assembly member, called the spill a “call to action that we need to stop drilling off our precious California coast.” So-Cal-based Representative Ted Lieu said “we need to shut down all offshore drilling because it’s too dangerous.” Exactly wrong. [4]

CA is already suffering greatly from anti-oil policies. For example, by conservative estimates the excessive motor fuel prices we pay cost us at least $20B a year. Compare this to the $20M cleanup from the last significant CA oil spill (Refugio Beach).

Given that Californians’ lives, like all lives in the modern world, depend on oil, we need to expand our ability to produce and transport oil–not make our current costly restrictions even worse by shutting down even more oil production and by opposing pipelines.

Pipelines are an incredibly safe mode of transportation for oil, natural gas, ethanol, and many other important liquids and gases. Despite millions of miles of pipelines, there are fewer fatalities from pipelines than from lightning strikes. [5]

Despite increasing oil+gas production and transport in the US, the number of incidents, including those impacting people or the environment (IPE), has decreased during the shale boom–a fact glaringly missing from the media portrayal of spills. [6]

Let’s take the occasion of the pipeline leak to have a real conversation about how to improve the safe production and transport of life-sustaining oil in California. And let’s reject the charlatans who would make life far worse for Californians by restricting oil even more.


1 NYT – California Oil Spill Closes Beaches and Renews Call for Drilling Ban
2 OC Register – Oil spill: Newport and Dana Point harbors have reopened
Michael Shellenberger – Why Wind Turbines Threaten Endangered Species With Extinction
California Department of Fish and Wildlife – Refugio
3 NOAA – Natural Oil Seeps in Southern California
4 Reuters – ‘Catastrophic’ California oil spill kills fish, damages wetlands
NYT – California Oil Spill Closes Beaches and Renews Call for Drilling Ban
5 Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) – Pipeline Incident 20 Year Trends
National Weather Service – How Dangerous is Lightning?
Association of Oil Pipe Lines – KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS

Alex Epstein is a philosopher who applies big-picture, humanistic thinking to industrial and environmental controversies. He founded Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), a for-profit think tank and communications consulting firm focused on energy and environmental issues, in 2011 to offer a positive, pro-human alternative to the Green movement. He is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less. He is the author of featuring hundreds of concise, powerful, well-referenced talking points on energy, environmental, and climate issues. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEpstein.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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