Amplify Energy’s emergency response plan for a major oil spill like the one it’s now dealing with in coastal Southern California depended heavily on a quick shutdown of the San Pedro Bay Pipeline if its sensors picked up a sudden loss of pressure. That’s not what happened, United States investigators revealed Tuesday.
After an alarm went off in a company control room at 2:30am (09:30 GMT) Saturday — signalling a rupture that would spill tens of thousands of gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean — the company waited more than three hours to shut down the pipeline, at 6:01am (13:01 GMT), according to preliminary findings of an investigation into the spill.
The Houston, Texas-based company took another three hours to notify the US Coast Guard’s National Response Center for oil spills, investigators said, further slowing the response to an accident for which Amplify workers spent years preparing.
“How come it took so long? That’s a fair question,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant and private accident investigator from Redmond, Washington. “If you have any doubt, your action should be to shut down and close … Something’s not quite right here.”
Pipeline control room alarms don’t always mean a leak and can be tripped by numerous factors — from a faulty signal from a sensor along the line, to a pump that goes offline and causes a sudden pressure change, according to Kuprewicz and other industry experts. But the alarms also are supposed to trigger immediate follow-up actions to quickly ascertain if anything is wrong.
It’s uncertain why that process dragged out hours in San Pedro Bay, potentially worsening a spill that left some birds coated with oil and has stirred worries about broader environmental impacts.
The cause of the pipeline break just offshore from Los Angeles remains under investigation. Early findings point to a ship anchor possibly catching the line and dragging it across the sea floor, tearing a gash in the 12.7mm (half-inch-thick) steel pipe.
The timeline of the company’s response appears to contradict statements from Amplify’s CEO, Martyn Willsher, who told reporters on Monday that the company first became aware of the spill after receiving a report from a boat that there was sheen in the water.
Willsher acknowledged the company’s equipment was supposed to help detect spills, then said, “we did not have any notice that there was a leak” prior to the sheen report.
In documents released Tuesday detailing the company’s actions, federal transportation officials did not comment on the time lag in shutting down the line or reveal any potential explanation that the Amplify executives may have offered.
Company representatives did not respond to emailed questions about the delay between the alarm and the shutdown.
Problems with faulty leak detection procedures have plagued the industry for years, including during a massive 2010 oil spill that polluted 64km (40 miles) of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. In that case, an Enbridge Inc pipeline leaked at least 3.2 million liters (843,000 gallons) of crude over 17 hours, even as alarms kept going off in a company control room.
The company later settled pollution violations in the case for $176m.
The accident spurred calls for more stringent leak detection rules and the installation of more automatic or remote-control shut-off valves that can quickly halt the flow of oil in a leak.
A dearth of such valves was also cited in another 2010 pipeline accident — a natural gas transmission line explosion in San Bruno, California, that left eight dead and dozens injured after the line continued burning like a massive blowtorch for almost 90 minutes before the line was shut down manually.
Federal officials began crafting new leak detection and valve rules under former President Barack Obama, but they were never finalised.
A new rule proposed last year under former President Donald Trump and now awaiting final approval would mandate more valves only for new or replaced oil pipelines, not the thousands of miles that are already in use. The change came after oil industry lobbying groups including the American Petroleum Institute said retrofitting lines with valves would cost up to $1.5m per device.
The pending rule does not set standards for leak detections, giving companies significant leeway in how sensitive to leaks their equipment needs to be, said Bill Caram with the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Washington-based group that advocates for safer pipelines.
“It makes us worry for our country’s ageing energy infrastructure,” Caram said. “We fear this could become a bigger and bigger issue.”
John Stoody with the Association of Oil Pipe Lines said companies and industry groups are working hard to improve leak detection technologies. Fine-tuning equipment is part of that, to make sure companies can detect even small leaks but not have to respond to false alarms.
“If you’re riddled with false alarms,” Stoody said, “people have a harder time reacting.”