Port traffic jams could be the cause of California oil spill

A relentless maritime standoff in waters outside Los Angeles has already contributed to higher costs, delays and intermittent shortages of goods in the United States. Now that could be to blame for California’s biggest oil spill in 27 years.

While the official cause of a pipeline rupture that spilled up to 3,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean off Orange County is unconfirmed, preliminary reports indicate an anchor may have hung the pipeline, ripping through the metal. About 4,000 feet of the pipeline had been moved 105 feet from its original position and divers found a 13-inch crack in the line that is likely the source of the release, the Coast Guard said.

The pipeline has been “drawn like a bowstring,” Martyn Willsher, general manager of line operator Amplify Energy Corp., said in a briefing this week. “It’s a 16-inch steel pipeline that is half an inch thick and covered with an inch of concrete, and moving 105 feet is not common.” The volume of oil that has flowed out of the leak is likely to be revised downwards. , Willsher said Wednesday. About 5,000 gallons have already been recovered, according to the US Coast Guard.

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The spill discovered over the weekend, which has tainted nearby wetlands and closed popular beaches along the Orange County coast, came at a time when there is a near-record save of ships waiting off Southern California ports. Huge ships line up to unload containers of cargo to meet burgeoning American demand for everything from building materials to bicycles. The lack of truck drivers and the lack of available warehouse space are slowing down deliveries.

“The more vessels you have at anchor, the greater the chance of something happening,” said Paul Blomerus, executive director of the Vancouver-based Clear Seas Center for Responsible Marine Shipping. “There are a few examples of anchors hanging off critical infrastructure” in the past, including power cables, he said. Such accidents are rare, according to the Clear Seas research group. In 2017, in two separate incidents in January and April, ship anchors hung power cables in Vancouver, the organization said.

As workers rushed to contain the southward drift of crude oil from the pipeline incident on Monday, a total of 146 ships, nearly two-thirds of which are container ships, were anchored or docked in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach near the record hit late last month, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which monitors offshore vessel traffic. Nine of the ten so-called emergency anchorages off Huntington Beach, near where the pipeline breach occurred, were occupied and 33 ships were drifting in waters deeper in the ocean.

Critical infrastructure such as submarine pipelines are carefully marked on nautical charts so that ships can steer clear. But ships can sometimes drag their anchors when moving for “a number of reasons,” James Kipling Louttit, executive director of Marine Exchange, said by phone Wednesday. He said he could not comment on the cause of the pipeline rupture in particular other than that it does not interfere with shipping traffic. Spokesmen for the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports also said the spill had no impact on their operations.

The oil spill was first discovered on Saturday morning after a low pressure alarm on the pipeline sounded around 2:30 a.m.

Satellite imagery shows what appeared to be an oil slick forming at 10:58 p.m. Friday, according to John Amos, president of SkyTruth, an environmental watch group that tracks incidents in the oil and gas industry.

“What could be causing this kind of sudden high volume release?” Amos said in a Zoom interview. “An anchor strike.”

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