Gaius Publius: The Constant Cost of Carbon — Another California Oil Spill

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By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, Americablog, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

la-me-santa-barbara-county-beach-oil spill
Oil spill off Santa Barbara coast (Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Thoreau once wrote, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The full quote is:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

It’s likewise said that we don’t grow corn; corn grows us, then uses us to spread its genetic material around the country and the world at our expense. At that task, corn is successful beyond its dreams.

In the same way, we don’t burn carbon — oil and gas. By burning the earth, it burns us, and in the process uses us to burn itself, to desequester its long earth-buried atoms and reenter the atmosphere as a gas. Through most of the history of life on earth, CO2 has been far more prevalent in the atmosphere than it has been during the age of humans.


The blue line near the middle shows CO2 concentration during the age of humans, which started about 200,000 years ago. The horizontal dotted line shows 400 ppm, where we are today. The tall red line on the right is where we’re headed by 2100 under “business as usual.” Notice how neatly that matches most of the past (source).

While carbon is burning us, creating this world, it’s also poisoning us, creating this world, a world of ever-increasing spills and explosions, of groundwater arsenic and unlivable shorelines. About those shorelines …

Oil Spill Off Santa Barbara Coast (Again)

As reported by the LA Times and the Santa Barbara Independent, there’s a pretty serious oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast in an area called Refugio State Beach. The source of the spill is a shoreline pipeline whose leak detection mechanism apparently failed to work. The leak poured what was first reported as 21,000 gallons of oil into the ocean …

During the several-hours-long leak, about 21,000 gallons of oil escaped the pipeline, Coast Guard officials estimated. Coast Guard crews stopped the leak by 3 p.m., said Petty Officer Andrea Anderson.

… but those estimates were apparently provided by the pipeline company itself, Plains All American Pipeline, to the Coast Guard (my emphasis throughout):

The accident has been classified by federal responders as a “medium-sized” spill and was traced to an underground pipeline a few hundred yards inland above Highway 101. The 24-inch pipe is owned and operated by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which stopped the leak at approximately 3 p.m. It’s unclear how long the pipe was leaking, what caused it to break, or exactly how much crude escaped. Plains initially reported that 21,000 gallons of oil made its way into the ocean, but that number is expected to rise after county, Coast Guard, and state Fish and Wildlife personnel tally the true damage.

Nice of the Coast Guard to take the company’s word and make it their own. An update at the Independent offered this correction:

Lt. Jonathan McCormick with the U.S. Coast Guard said an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil spilled into the ocean. That estimate comes from Plains All American Pipeline. An independent assessment has not yet been completed, he said, and it’s unknown how many gallons of crude remain on land and along the shoreline.

The latest news from the AP puts the number of gallons much higher:

BREAKING: Pipeline company: Up to 105,000 gallons of oil might have spilled from California line.

I’m willing to bet that’s not the last word, especially since the source is, again, the pipeline company, with an economic interest in underplaying the problem.

About That Pipeline Company …

The version of the story at the Independent has some background on Plains All American Pipeline:

Founded in 1998, Plains All American Pipeline is in the business of transporting and storing crude oil and natural gas all over the continent. According to the SEC, the company’s net revenue last year was $1.39 billion. Tuesday’s spill was the latest in a number of similar accidents in recent years. The EPA has recorded at least 10 serious incidents in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas; between June 2004 and September 2007, more than 273,000 gallons of crude was leaked, and in a 2010 settlement with EPA, the company agreed to spend $41 million to upgrade 10,400 miles of pipeline and pay $3.2 million in civil penalties. In 2011, Plains’ Canadian division was responsible for three major accidents in Alberta.

Last May, a 130-mile Plains pipeline that runs through Los Angeles County ruptured and sent 19,000 gallons of crude through the streets of Atwater Village. The leak lasted around 45 minutes, covered a half-mile area in oil, and caused the evacuation of nearby buildings. According to news reports, Plains was not aware of the spill until residents called the city fire department, which then had to notify the company.

Not a small company. And it apparently swings enough pipe of its own to get special oversight dispensations:

The broken Plains pipeline funnels 45,000-50,000 barrels of produced oil a day between ExxonMobil‘s Las Flores Canyon Processing Facility near Refugio to the Plains-owned Gaviota pumping station. From there, it travels to refineries in Kern County. The 10-mile pipeline was installed in the early 1990s. Notably, it’s the only piece of energy infrastructure on Santa Barbara County land that’s not under the county’s watch. When pipe was put in, Plains successfully sued to place it under the supervision of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, arguing state management pre-empted local oversight.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Plains is “sorry” and “deeply regrets” the incident. So do their stockholders, but I’m guessing on that. The stockholders have yet to speak.

The Political Angle — the California Congressional Delegation

California’s District 24 is represented by Lois Capps, who was quoted in the Independent as saying:

“I am deeply saddened by the images coming from the scene at Refugio,” Rep. Lois Capps said Wednesday morning. “This incident is yet another stark reminder of the serious risks to our environment and economy that come from drilling for oil.”

While Capps may be a friend of the coastline (by backing sure-to-fail bills in the U.S. House), she’s also a corporate-friend member of the New Dem Coalition and refused to take a position on county Measure P, which would have banned fracking in Santa Barbara County and the Channel Islands.

Measure P lost:

Most Santa Barbara County residents didn’t vote on Tuesday, but those who did made one thing clear: They didn’t support Measure P. Shot down by a whopping 62.65 percent of voters, the contentious initiative — which would have banned all new fracking, acidizing, and cyclic steam injection wells in the county’s unincorporated regions — pitted environmentalists sounding the alarm on climate change against the oil industry calling for fair regulations. And the oil industry — with help from operators in Santa Barbara County and beyond — dug into its deep pockets, shelling out approximately $6.6 million to defeat the measure, while Measure P supporters raised just more than $400,000.

You can buy a lot of votes and lay down a lot of fog with $6.6 million … in a county election no less.

Lois Capps is retiring after this term and Blue America is looking for a replacement who is more in keeping with what the district needs. In the meantime, in a neighboring district, CA-44, Blue America has endorsed progressive candidate Nanette Barragán.

About that race, Howie Klein writes via email:

CA-44 is an open congressional seat because Janice Hahn is running for Supervisor. One of the most corrupt Sacramento politicians, Isadore Hall, is the Establishment fave. He’s the second biggest recipient of money from Big Oil in the legislature and he’s the lobbyists’ favorite lawmaker. His opponent, Nanette Barragán, got into politics fighting Big Oil— and beating them.

You can contribute to the Barragán campaign, along with other Blue America candidates, here (adjust the split in any way you like, including 100% for Barragán).

We End Where We Began

We began this piece with the idea that the trains ride us, the corn gene breeds us and feeds us for its own propagation … and our oil burns us so it can return to the skies.

I’m not sure we can stop the trains — the march of technology — but we can stop the march of carbon into the atmosphere. All we have to do is adopt an Easter Island solution and depose its human agents:

You’re a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, “Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now.” The chief, who’s also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.

Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?

There’s always a choice …

And now is the time to make it. We can end the rule of carbon, and those who suck money from it, the minute we really want to.

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  1. kimsarah

    Our East coast governors cannot wait to start exploring the Atlantic seaboard for oil and gas by using underwater booms to locate hot spots, with the ultimate intention of drilling for it soon after — because of the jobs and economic boost to their states’ economy. Nothing is said about the trade-off that would come with a hit on the tourism and fishing industries, which are huge in those states. The attitude is, what could go wrong?

  2. LifelongLib

    A better analogy to our current situation would be if 99.9% of the people on Easter Island were building their houses out of wood, and the only alternative for most was not building houses at all. That’s what we’re facing.

    1. Susan Truxes

      We have enough recycling and future recycled products to last a millenium; we should employ them in the building industry… China just built a 5 story apartment building made from a 3-D printing of large construction components which were a mixture of quick-crete, recyclable stuff and “tailings.” OK,tailings are worrysome because they can be so toxic they will make your whole house sick, but the idea is spectacular.

  3. MRW

    “Take Two,” Southern California Public Radio show. Listen to the 5 min-15 sec. interview with David Valentine, professor with the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara, who was part of the research clean-up team. Recording here: Researchers examine impacts from Santa Barbara oil spill.
    Who knew that the natural oil seepage from the ocean floor off the coast of Santa Barbara is 500 gallons every three hours. That’s 4,000 gallons a day, or 1,460,000 gallons a year!
    And . . .

    Santa Barbara pipeline did not have automatic shut-off valve
    LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of oil on the California coast was the only pipe of its kind in the county not required to have an automatic shut-off valve because of a court fight nearly three decades ago, a county official said.

    The original owner of the pipeline skirted the Santa Barbara County requirement by successfully arguing in court in the late 1980s that it should be subject to federal oversight because the pipeline is part of an interstate network, said Kevin Drude, deputy director of the county’s Energy and Minerals Division. Auto shut-off valves are not required by federal regulators.

    “It’s the only major pipeline that doesn’t have auto shut-off,” Drude said. “For us, it’s routine.”

    Auto shut-off valves are are not required by federal regulators ?!? You effin’ kidding me?

    1. jefemt

      I mean no disrespect, and this is a comment, not a finger pointing accusation…
      “If you want an omelette, you have to break a few eggs…” That is a refrain often heard in resource extraction circles, regarding the externalities and impacts of their industries. There is a grain or two of truth in the notion. I was aghast that my free-market pals in NYC and DC felt that their lifestyle and demands had no causality or link to the Macando blowout in the gulf. (That was not a spill. I spill coffee… that was a catastrophic blowout… words matter…)

      I am dazzled that some folks seem to have faith and belief that some amorphous, benevolent third-party force or entity is going to make changes that positively impact our lives. Or, as a counterpoint, that their personal choices do not link to the carbon problem.

      OK, the shut-off valves are IOCO (intuitively obvious to the casual observer), BUT, what about the deeper root cause, the mirror gaze that Pogo observed (we have met the enemy and he is us!) ?

      As long as we don’t individually, personally through demand, choice, and voting our dollars-make the changes, we cannot rationally expect to see a change- on any front, but particularly with energy, carbon, dino-fuels.

      Have you yet bought solar panels, an electric car? Have you changed your utility bill choice to demand and buy more expensive ‘green’ electrons? Do you walk or ride a bike to work and to buy the barest essentials? Do you stay at home and garden, spend time with local community strengthening it, or do you still jet around the world to pursue your frivolities? Be the change you want to see…

      We all have a very real expectation of convenience in our days: turn on the light switch, expect and demand light, fire up the stove, expect and demand heat, turn on the radio, TV, laptop, expect to get the NPR going and tuck into Yves’ and company’s juiciest tid-bits,,… these little actions all have energy impacts.

      While none of us are advocating back to a Luddite cave per se, we need to make a better effort at living in the moment, especially when it comes to energy. Be conscious of the every day choices and their consequences.

      Here’s one to mull over: I still believe we should make units of energy the basic global currency. Wrestle the control by central bankers represented by hypothetical paper and fiat back into something tangible, and non-arbitrary (gold is arguably just as arbitrary and faith-based as paper money). Each source of energy would be valued at a base-line tied directly to full-life-cycle analysis of impacts, cradle to grave, of a given unit of energy. Carbon based fuels would likely create lower-regarded, higher cost energy, so there would be an incentive to produce less units of carbon-based. Ditto nukes… NO one wants the waste, and we do not know what to do with the waste, it is an uninsurable industry, and really should be shelved- run- do not walk-away from that one…). Force utilities to buy from any producer, no more net metering- creating an instant entrepreneurial initiative for anyone with a roof-top for solar, or a wind-swept hill-top for wind, or a stream-side non-fish disruptive micro-hydro system, or their 19 kids on bicycle dynamos. Simplify the tax code to no deductions no-exceptions! flat tax with three or four progressive percentage rate groupings, and free the accountants to get to work doing full life cycle cost-accounting on Every Thing. Make the results of the audits available to Everyone. Then every one could be informed and vote their money accordingly. It might make a huge, quick difference on carbon in the world, as well as be driven by and in control of all of us… small d democracy, grass-rootsy.

      The problem, of course, is that ‘the leaders’ have to agree to it, roll it out, and make it so.

      So while we wait for something meaningful and positive to happen between election cycles in Little- Versailles-on-the-Potomac, perhaps we individually should act and do what we can, personally. Divest a bit from Wall Street and put it into your own solar system! Buy a new, smooth-riding dreamy touring road bike. Walk or ride a bike-everywhere. Put on a sweater and a toque. Grow and put by your own food. Get to know the neighbors and barter and share more. It is a start… Freedom isn’t free; less oil= more freedom.

      Nomastah (pronounced like Namaste, but different in oh so many ways…)

      1. Vatch

        You forgot to emphasize the importance of limiting family size. More people causes more resource use. Well, you did mention 19 kids on bicycle dynamos, but nobody should have that many children in the first place. Even three children leads to environmental stresses and harmful growth if enough people have a family of that size.

      2. Chauncey Gardiner

        Thank you for a thoughtful comment, jefemt. I am intrigued by your idea regarding using energy units as the basic currency unit. However, it seems to me that the money would by definition need to be renewable energy units. Otherwise, once the energy has been used, the “money” would seem to me to be destined for a quick trip to money heaven (a “return to the skies” as Gaius Publius puts it.) :-)

        When I read your comment, I recalled that back in early 2008 before the collapse of the financial system I read an article by a chemical engineer with the nom d’ plume “Hellasious”; i.e., “Hell as IOU’s”, who proposed implementation of a monetary system that uses renewable, “green” energy as a benchmark. Hel called the new currency the “‘Greenback’, an allusion to the fact that for most people nothing would change in their daily routine. Same dollars, same bank accounts, same credit cards. The monetary institutions would also be retained: the Fed and the banking system. The only change – admittedly a big one – would be the rate at which money supply is allowed to expand. … Putting it in simple terms, money growth would increase with “green” energy use and be constricted if “black” (fossil fuel-based) energy grows.”

        If you are interested, here is a link to his related article:

        1. DanB

          “Putting it in simple terms, money growth would increase with “green” energy…” This implies 1) so-called green energy is not connected in numerous ways to fossil fuel supplies-as the prime mover of energy supply- and 2) that green energy can one day supply more energy than fossil fuels. At present all we have are promises, promises of what green energy can one day supply. The central concept missing from this otherwise good discussion of money and energy is that fact that the world has reached the limits to growth. Most people -including those committed to social justice and real democracy- do not or cannot accept this proposition and are trying to envision a world of social justice where the economy keeps on expanding. In my view, that belief in endless growth is a dangerous fiction, one shared -by the way- with neoliberals.

        2. jefemt

          Thanks for link… interesting concept, and comments (as usual). Liklihood of anything other than same ‘ol BAU is nil, but we need some new ideas and direction… lemmings to the brink, can we take a 90 degree turn with some major paradigm shifts?

    2. diptherio

      This is why our oil infrastructure needs to be nationalized. It’s insane that we’ve set up a system for this incredibly important and dangerous industry in which the owners of the infrastructure are incentivized to cut corners wherever possible. If we were actually concerned about safety, we’d change our system so that safety, instead of negligence, would be rewarded. I, for one, am not holding my breath.

  4. qufuness

    Lois Capps is a friend of my family’s and also a consistent friend of the environment. Her New Dem affiliation belies her solidly progressive voting record. Her “moderate” persona has allowed her to retain a seat that was safe GOP for fifty years and reach out to members of both parties to work on issues close to her: health, gender equality and the environment. I wish more Congresspersons had characters and voting records like hers, and I hope that Blue America can find another real progressive who can keep the seat in a district much less safe for Democrats.

    1. bruno marr

      …good points. I live in Capps congress district (it includes parts of Ventura County [Elton Gallegly?!], Santa Barbara County, and a portion of San Luis Obispo (ranch country)). Capps was elected to her seat after her husband (who held the seat) died. She has grown tremendously as a congresswoman and is an ardent environmentalist (given the political diversity of the District).

      That said, since she is retiring, a more forceful (damning?) statement on the environmental consequence of the oil blowout would be appreciated. The amount of oil lost from the pipeline is much less than the 1969 Blowout, but the environmental impact is just as severe. The area (ocean, shoreline, coast lands) are some of the most valuable marine aquatics enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors to these State Park managed resource lands. The environmental impact will be felt by marine life and human life for years.

  5. Susan Truxes

    The only way to end the oil industry – and if we don’t they will continue to devastate the planet with our collusion – is to end automobiles. The age of automobiles. It should already be history. We can look back on it nostalgically with memories of “joy riding” and other stupid things. Our reverie will never torture us with true memories of stinking, sickening polluted air and water, absurd transportation requirements so the oil industry and it’s pal the automobile industry can make obscene profits, and etc. Let’s be clear minded here. No more private cars. Period. Delivery vehicles, ok. Emergency vehicles, ok. Trains and busses, ok. But no more cars.

    1. jefemt

      well, it goes waaaay beyond cars. My favorite disc golf discs? Plastic. The fly-line on my fishing reels? The nylon in my raingear, the fabric of my polarfleece. The farmer who feeds us all? Oil in the tractor crankcase, 99% chance oil-derivative is the fuel, oil creating the fertilizers and pesticides. We eat oil. Oil in the shampoo for your hair, oil in the neat little plastic containers for your food at the store… the shid is EVERYWHERE.
      It also, despite being the literal devils brew from the bowels of the earth, is remarkably wonderful energy dense and portable. We waste it, big time.
      Its a huge process to convert, and electric golf carts or mini cars are not necessarily evil… goes back to that full life cycle analysis… compare a walk to a bike ride to a high MPG dino-fueld car to electric, to public transportation. How can we compare them if no one has done the homework to give honest objective data? There are jobs in there…
      Also, think of the jobs in creating truly sustainable shampoo, containers for foodstuffs from marketplaces, alternative transportation, etc. Huge opportunity– why would the big oil guys want to walk away from all of that business, and their invested infrastructure?
      With unlimited financial influence in a bought congress, they really are in the drivers seat. Don’t even get me started on the military subsidy we provide safeguarding ‘our’ foreign sourced oil around the world. Every US action has natural resources running in the background– follow the money-mantra of the cynic…
      Its up to us, individually , to vote another direction with our pocketbooks and our daily choices. Objectively not worth voting at the booth for either ‘side’ of a single tin coin.

      Hey, ho Lets GO!

      1. Elliot

        ” think of the jobs in creating truly sustainable shampoo, containers for foodstuffs from marketplaces, alternative transportation, etc. Huge opportunity– why would the big oil guys want to walk away from all of that business, and their invested infrastructure?”

        They don’t (want to walk away from that biz). Not only are there already plant-based alternatives to petroleum based surfactants (for shampoo/detergents..think: coconut oil) but major suppliers & cosmetics firms are in a hot race to find more, to build better sustainable packaging, to source sustainably. It is definitely an opportunity that is being seized, at least in the cosmetics, personal care, & food industries, both in the US and overseas.. a lot of new surfs come from Italy (olive oil…) and recyclable packaging from the US (paper, corn feedstocks). I have reservations about trees going for food packaging (remember china & glass? Both of which recycle) and about farm acreage going for takeout boxes but if it slows down the climate mess we are making, that’s good.

  6. Elliot

    Tried to edit the above, and kludged it. Tisn’t big oil that is doing that innovating in the personal care industry, it is the players in that industry, who may have been originally mostly petroleum sourced but have been also using plant based materials for as long as the industry has existed, but have added or begun to switch to biobased ingredients. Their customer base is a driver in this… something car drivers are not quite as focused about.

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