What Does the California Spill Tell Us About Policy Paralysis?

Dr. Shreya Upadhyay
14th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: AP

Last week a large oil spill from an underwater pipeline of the southern California coast in the United States caused massive destruction to wetlands, fouled beaches, and killed wildlife. Even as clean-up responses are underway, an investigation into how the spill occurred has been going on. At the time of writing this article, it was estimated that 126,000 gallons of oil has been spilled, even as those numbers are not confirmed.

It is but common sense that the spilled oil is acutely toxic on the marine and the coastal wildlife. It is extremely difficult to completely clean the spilled oil. Despite massive clean-up efforts, oil still remains and have a long-term impact on the coastal ecosystem affecting tiny bacteria to deep-sea corals to arthropods. Research has shown that cleaning oily birds and animals is a risky business and marine oil cleanup can often do more harm than good.

The timing of the ongoing spill is worse as it has taken place during a major seasonal bird migration, meaning many that stop to eat at these beaches and wetlands may struggle to find enough food. The region’s beaches and scattered wetlands support several threatened or endangered species, including the snowy plover and the California least tern. The offshore drilling projects with or without spillage are considered risky for residents who live within half a mile of working oil or gas well. Several health risks ranging from pre-term labor to lung issues can be traced to extraction-related pollution.

California’s waters have experienced multiple spills over the past several years. The largest and in some ways the most effective was the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that kickstarted the environmental movement. The last spill was the 2015 Refugio spill in Santa Barbara, which released 123,000 gallons from an underground pipeline on land into the ocean. The worst spill in the recent history of the US was the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which cost BP $56 billion.

As has been common with spills in the past, each large spill leads to calls for action regarding banning offshore drilling and shifting to cleaner energy sources such as solar power and offshore wind. California has some of the most ambitious climate goals aiming for net emission goals by 2045. Yet, it remains the seventh largest source of fossil fuel in the US.

What is the Reason for Policy Lacunae?

Even as spills open the eyes of oil permeating through the most ecologically rich, culturally important, and economically valuable parts of the world, the regulatory environment hardly changes. Even as new rules, inspections and safety checks are made strong, over time those weaken. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill led to coming up of new laws and regulations to deal with future tanker spills. But it did not cover offshore drilling or underwater pipelines or some other form of spillage.

Why the policy lacunae?

The answer for this question lies in looking at the energy poverty that the world is going through. Despite the talk about clean energy and going net emissions, societies depend on inexpensive energy. The oil and gas industry economy is valued at $87 trillion and any quicker transition to renewables will endanger not only economies but also food security, among other things. It was the fossil fuels after all that powered the industrial revolution, pulled millions out of poverty, and shaped the modern world. But the advantages have come with a devastating downside. Oil spill is but one outcome of the fossil fuel driven societies. Climate change effects are there for all to see. Fires, hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and droughts are all part of the game. With a population of eight billion using more energy than ever before, there is need for technology and strong policy to move in a new direction. And there lies the problem. While technology is ever growing and moving towards finding viable solutions, the window of opportunity to bring about a policy change is narrow. This becomes especially difficult when it comes to re-making a multi-trillion-dollar industry that lies at the center of the economy and people’s lives. The political decisions are hard as they tend to focus on policies that can be seen immediately. A durable climate policy requires support of multiple stakeholders – politicians on the left and right, business leaders, pressure groups and civil society. And it is a no brainer that their perspectives differ, there is lack of consensus, stark polarizations, and competing interests at play—all making any sort of viable climate action challenging!


*The Author is an Assistant Professor at Christ (deemed to be University), Bangalore and the Honorary Deputy Director of the Kalinga Institute of the Indo-Pacific Studies

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the Article are of the Author