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Crude Awakenings


Crude Awakenings

September 7, 2000 --

Could an Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Happen in Southern California?

Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling almost eleven million gallons of crude oil. It was the largest oil tanker spill in United States history.

Following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill both the oil industry and the federal and California state government were awakened to the destruction of oil spills. Since that time we have discovered that complacency has overshadowed post-Valdez stringency and is endangering our marine environment. In 1992 – using a model developed by the Department of the Interior it was predicted that there was a 94% likelihood of an Exxon Valdez type oil spill in southern California waters sometime within the next 30 years. In 1998, 704 tank vessels called on the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach, carrying approximately 5.5 million barrels of oil through the area (302,500,000 gallons of oil). Each of these tankers can carry between 55,000 and 33 million gallons of oil – up to triple the amount that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

If the Exxon Valdez had spilled its crude oil in southern California coastal waters, the oil spilled could cover the beaches from the initial spill area to hundreds of miles south of the Mexican border or an area that would stretch along the entire California coastline. (In the Valdez spill, oil reached shorelines 600 miles southwest of Bligh Reef). Could an Exxon Valdez type of spill happen in southern California? After looking at the level of oil spill prevention and response in California we have concluded that we are in fact minutes from Doomsday on the Doomsday Oil Spill clock. Overlapping jurisdictions and inadequate agency resources among the state agencies and a lack of commitment in terms of money and research by private industry to plan for and responds to oil spills are jeopardizing our ocean resources.

Our investigation into spill prevention and response in California exposed several "Risks" on the part of the government, including insufficient staffing of the Marine Facilities Division of the State Lands Commission, limitations to the Vessel Tracking Service, pipeline safety, frequency of response drills/method used for response drills and lapses in regulating Navy vessels. On the part of the oil industry the following risks were uncovered: a lack of pre-booming at the Chevron El Segundo Marine Terminal, oil terminal/refinery worker safety and the continual use of single hull tankers. A glaring example of both agency and industry irresponsibility is the Chevron El Segundo Marine Oil Terminal. Here ships carrying Valdez size loads of oil conduct oil transfers without many of the reasonable safeguards required up and down the state.

Yet another unsettling area of concern that is revealed is a lack of planning by coastal cities. In spite of the 1990 Huntington Beach American Trader Oil Spill and the Valdez spill, none of the cities located on the Santa Monica Bay have a clear plan in place to deal with an oil spill disaster. Huntington Beach city officials expressed that had they had a plan in place in preparation for the massive spill the cleanup and beach closures would have been significantly mitigated.

The report makes several recommendations that, if implemented, will move use further away from the current hour of danger into one of safety. Most significant is the need for a firm commitment from both the oil industry and governmental agencies. Those who profit from the transportation of oil through our waters must be held accountable. The oil industry must be mandated to use simple, proven and affordable technologies and to invest into the research and development of improved spill response technologies. This includes increasing their investment into Vessel Tracking Systems and Automated Identification Systems. The state must require that pre-booming be required for all offshore oil terminals. The state should appoint a single lead agency to oversee spill prevention and response in California. The Governor should appoint a commission to review these jurisdictions and make recommendations for combining them under the authority of one agency. The U.S. Coast Guard should require that spill response plans should be prepared by each coastal county and city.

The California Lempert-Keane-Seastrand Act Oil Pollution Act of 1990 directs that the administrator provide for both "Best Achievable Protection" and "Best Achievable Technology". This report reveals that currently, neither of these mandates are being realized in the Santa Monica Bay.

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