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Effects of oil spill, oil subsidies highlight congressional hearing in Irvine – Orange County Register

Fishery owners whose livelihoods screeched to a halt. Wildlife rescuers who’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning oil from birds’ feathers. Coastal business advocates who are tallying up harms to local shops, restaurants and hotels.

These were some of the stories witnesses shared during a congressional hearing held Monday, Oct. 18, in Irvine, about how this month’s oil spill has affected their lives.

Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano — who led the joint hearing by the House Natural Resources’ subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and on Energy and Mineral Resources at the headquarters of the Irvine Ranch Water District — said the company that owns the pipeline continues to get millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to stay profitable.

“Getting rid of these subsidies is the first step to getting rid of the problem,” said Porter, who chairs the oversight subcommittee.

The rare out-of-D.C. hearing didn’t focus on what caused an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil to leak into the ocean, but Porter, Lowenthal and Levin insisted an end to all offshore drilling is the best way to mitigate the risk of a future spill.

“We will wait for the agencies to complete their investigations before talking about accountability,” Porter said.

“But the first step toward accountability is to understand the damage. And that’s why we are here today, to hear directly from the community about what happened.”

Businesses impacted

Sounding defeated, Scott Breneman, whose family has sold fish through Newport Beach’s Dory Fishing Fleet and Market since 1902, told Congress members his fishing business dropped 90% after the spill. He added that he doesn’t know when, or if, it will fully recover.

Lowenthal asked Breneman how he can get customers to come back, admitting “it would a lot to convince me” that fish coming out of local waters now are safe to eat. Breneman said they fish 90 miles offshore, often 3,000 feet deep — far from impacted waters. But he said the public doesn’t know that, and even restaurants that have bought from him for years are unsure what to do.

During a community forum after the hearing, Terese Pearson, who owns Pearson’s Port fishery in the Newport Back Bay, said the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told them they may not have toxicity testing that would allow fishing to start again until December.

“There’s a good chance that the holidays are going to be a bust for us,” Pearson said.

When the spill abruptly canceled the final day of the Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach — which is still reeling from last year’s closure due to the coronavirus pandemic — it also touched many other local businesses, testified Vipe Desai, who helped found the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast. He said owners of Wahoo’s Fish Tacos and Jack’s Surfboards reported major losses. At Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari, bookings fell 74%. And Grant Bixby, a local realtor, said his clients vacation rentals are down into November.

“Where they drill, they spill. And when they spill, working-class people are stuck with the consequences,” Desai said.

Oil subsidies questioned

Amplify Energy Corp., parent company to Beta Offshore, which operates the pipeline linked to the spill, didn’t participate in the hearing. But the company sent a statement Monday saying they’ve been supporting cleanup efforts and all investigations, and they’re committed to “safely operating” their oil operations going forward.

“Offshore energy development and maritime traffic can and have coexisted in this region for decades and we are committed to working with maritime stakeholders to investigate this incident and ensure something like this does not happen again.”

Porter said the losses to local business owners and costs to environmental groups should be counted among taxpayer subsidies to oil companies such as Amplify Energy.

Beta Offshore has received $20 million in federal “royalty relief” in recent years and is poised to get $11 million more to tap four new wells here, Porter said Monday. She said the subsidies are needed because drilling this platform is no longer economically viable.

The Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill being debated in Congress, currently includes Democrats’ proposal to end such subsidies and ban all future offshore drilling in federal waters.

Full impacts unknown

House members and environmental advocates at Monday’s hearing said they were relieved to learn the oil leak is expected to be smaller than the initial high-end estimate of 131,000 gallons. San Diego Rep. Sara Jacobs said her district seems to have been spared from contamination thanks to luck with ocean conditions.

But Jacobs, among others, still worries about about the spill’s long-term effects. She also said the current oversight rules, which some have suggested give oil operators too much influence on issues of safety and environmental protection, along with worsening storms due to climate change, are “recipe for disaster” regarding future spills.

Porter said the full affect of this leak might not be known for years.

Porter, who often uses a whiteboard and other props during public hearings, held up an enlarged photo of a toxic oil tar ball as she asked David Valentine, a marine science professor from UC Santa Barbara, about the potential long-term effects from the spill. Valentine said toxic oil tar balls can land on the sea floor or wash ashore, possibly far from the initial spill. He recalled how a 2019 spill off the coast of Brazil sent oil as far as Florida.

Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and UC Davis’ One Health Institute, said his group is testing what led to the illness of a sick dolphin that was recently euthanized. He added that even the birds his group has cleaned and released into clean waters can still face health risks if they eat food that’s been contaminated by oil.

Partisan fighting

During a community forum that followed the congressional hearing, Huntington Beach Councilwoman Natalie Moser shared how her city will vote Tuesday night on a measure to support an end to all offshore drilling. “This tragedy is local,” Moser said, expressing thanks for cleanup efforts and concern about long-term effects.

Several miles south, in Laguna Beach, roughly 100 people — including actress and activist Jane Fonda — attended a press conference Monday in support of a ban on all offshore oil drilling. State Sen. Dave Min, who participated in the event, has said he intends to introduce legislation to that effect in the upcoming session.

The oil spill has become a source of partisan dispute between local representatives and challengers facing tight races in 2022, and Monday’s hearing triggered more tension.

Democrats are rallying around offshore drilling bans. Republicans suggest the problem is the huge backlog of ships who can’t get into the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles because of supply chain issues touching the world economy. Investigators of the spill are focused on the idea that an idling ship anchor may have dislodged the pipeline earlier this year.

GOP Rep. Michelle Steel, whose 48th District includes much of coastal Orange County, has refused to answer questions about her position on offshore drilling, focusing instead on ships idling off the coast. Steel wasn’t at Monday’s hearing, triggering questions from residents on social media.

Steel isn’t on the subcommittees that held the joint hearing. But neither is Jacobs, who said she was invited to attend.

When asked if Steel was invited to the hearing, a spokesperson from Porter’s office said representatives can “waive on” to any House hearing to ask questions or give testimony. “We can confirm that Rep. Steel did not ask to waive on for this hearing, but additional questions about why she did not should be directed to her office.”

In response, Danielle Stewart with Steel’s office said:

“I think it’s misleading to insinuate she should have waived into a hearing for a committee she is not a member of, that she wasn’t invited to, and that wasn’t in her district. She has been focused on common sense solutions following the oil spill and will continue engaging with local leaders to support the district.”

Read More: Effects of oil spill, oil subsidies highlight congressional hearing in Irvine – Orange County Register

2021-10-18 19:36:59

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