The environmental damage is still being assessed but a spokesperson with the US Coast Guard overseeing cleanup said Friday they are highly confident that the amount of oil released will be closer to 25,000 gallons, rather than up to 131,000 gallons as previously feared.
Still, the incident has once again raised alarm about the threats of oil drilling to the coast. Environmentalists protesting outside Steel’s office last week called on her to support a ban on new offshore drilling that congressional Democrats are trying to include in President Joe Biden’s economic spending bill, likely hoping to put their GOP colleagues on record on the issue should it come up for a vote. Former Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, whom Steel defeated last year and is running again for this seat, spoke at the protest, and last week released a digital ad that attacked what his campaign says is Steel’s lack of position on the issue. “She refuses to answer questions about banning offshore drilling,” the ad says. “When disaster strikes home, we know where Michelle Steel is — standing with her oil and gas industry donors.”
When asked about her position on new offshore drilling leases, Steel’s aides said she is most focused on demanding accountability for the recent incident and exploring measures that will help guard against future spills, specifically by zeroing in on the environmental threats posed by the current backlog of ships at Los Angeles-area ports. Both Steel and Young were quick to call for a federal investigation into the pipeline’s history, the cause of the spill and the response of the oil company that operates the pipeline.
Shipping backlogs and drilling bans
Steel sent a letter to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and US Coast Guard on Thursday asking them to re-examine and survey the nautical charts near all pipelines linked to offshore oil platforms near the Orange County coast, calling it an “emergency mapping issue” that could prevent another disaster.
Republicans point out, however, that legislation banning new offshore oil drilling would not have prevented the recent spill near Huntington Beach, where the pipeline that ruptured some five miles offshore was installed in 1980.
“One of the things about environmental attitudes in California is that this is an area where Republicans and Democrats can coalesce around protecting the environment, the water, air and land,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. Though beaches have reopened in Orange County, the cleanup continues and “how those members of Congress deal with the issue is now not going to be just an abstract issue, but a very concrete issue,” he said.
Financial interests in oil
So far, the fiercest battle over environmental politics in the wake of the recent oil spill is unfolding between Steel and Rouda as they begin to engage in what’s likely to be a 2022 rematch.
“She’s taking tens of thousands of dollars from donors tied to the oil and gas business and that’s why she’s unwilling to do the right thing, which is to come out and say she will not support additional offshore drilling,” Rouda told CNN. “I’ve been consistent since before coming into Congress that I want to see the offshore drilling stop for obvious reasons, as to the ramifications if there is an oil spill that we are now seeing firsthand.”
When asked why Rouda invested in an exchange-traded fund that is pegged directly to the price of crude, his campaign said that the former congressman “is betting on a transition away from fossil fuels and towards a clean energy economy as we deplete this non-renewable resource.”
Steel’s campaign spokesman Lance Trover rejected that explanation of Rouda’s financial investment: “Voters recognize that is a phony response — he’s got oil investments and he just won’t own up to it. Just tell the truth.”
Trover called the renewed push by Democrats on a West Coast drilling ban political theater and a distraction. “They don’t want to talk about the real problem here — and that is that we have ships backed up off the coast for a gazillion miles and that is likely what caused this oil spill,” Trover said. “They don’t want to take on the President; they don’t want to point fingers at him,” he added, alluding to the supply chain bottleneck that Biden attempted to address last week.
“Democrats control every lever of government in this country, so if they wanted to get something done on this issue, they could do it today,” he added, even though Washington’s politically polarized climate has made it virtually impossible to move controversial legislation through the 50-50 Senate.
Trover predicted that California voters would pay more attention to what their leaders did when tragedy struck than debates over drilling policy that would not have directly prevented the crisis. “From the very first day, (Steel) was out there calling for the disaster declaration and looking at things like the SHIP ACT,” he said. “I think that’s what people and communities look to — people who stood up in the moment.”