California Reps. Hold Fossil Fuel Industry to Account

“Again and again we’ve seen fossil fuel companies put their own bottom lines above the interests of our communities,” Representative Levin shared during a House Natural Resources field hearing titled ‘Southern California Oil Leak: Investigating the Immediate Effects on Communities, Businesses, and the Environment’.

House Democrats are working to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for its harm to the environment and public health. Over the last ten days, they’ve held a committee markup, a hearing, and a field hearing.

California Oil Spill

The Huntington Beach disaster prompted California Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency. It has flooded the ocean with tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil, hammering local businesses and tarring the surrounding environment. There’s clearly a need for federal action.

The spill has fueled the fury of members like Reps. Lowenthal, Levin, Porter, and Huffman who are tired of this futile cycle of taxpayers subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, catastrophic oil spills saddling communities for years, all followed by business as usual. They want change.

Chair Lowenthal, Chair Porter, and Representative Levin at the House Natural Resources Field Hearing on 10/18/2021

Offshore Drilling Bills

The full committee marked up two bills that have even greater traction following the oil spill. 

  • Rep. McEachin’s Offshore Accountability Act (H.R. 570) requires offshore drilling operators to report failures of critical safety systems directly to the Secretary of the Interior among other things; and
  • Rep. Brownley’s Offshore Pipeline Safety Act (H.R. 2643) addresses the lack of proper oversight of active and decommissioned offshore oil and gas pipelines to ensure the decommissioned pipelines are cleaned up properly and that annual fees are added for pipelines.

Both bills passed out of committee, an important step in getting them passed into law. But that isn’t to say there was bipartisan enthusiasm for such basic accountability and safety measures. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) took on industry apologists with this insight: “To argue that we as a nation cannot afford to require oil companies to operate safely and to clean up their own messes as thousands of barrels of oil are spilling into the ocean is doublespeak.”

Hearings in the House

After the markup, a  subcommittee held a hearing on the need for safeguards for abandoned offshore fossil fuel infrastructure, with more calls to hold industry accountable. Chair Lowenthal ran the hearing to look into how to hold industry accountable when something goes wrong with offshore pipelines and infrastructure that no longer have use. Sometimes there’s no formal decommissioning, for example.

Witnesses shared that there aren’t monitoring requirements for abandoned wells to ensure they don’t leak and that oil and gas companies do not adequately prepare for the costs of dealing with retiring old wells.

“Why shouldn’t we have higher fines and make sure that no taxpayer is on the hook for cleaning up a mess that another company profited from making?” Rep. Porter asked. “That is not acceptable to me, and I don’t think it should be acceptable to anybody on this committee, regardless of party.”

California’s offshore champions in the House are just getting started. Monday’s field hearing focused more on how the spill has harmed Californians. Chairs Porter and Lowenthal made their thoughts on the matter very clear, with Rep. Lowenthal emphasizing that, “Time and again California have suffered at the hands of offshore drilling,”.

Witnesses spoke to the harm to wildlife and coastal economies, and the uncertainty about how long communities will feel the spill’s impacts. Rep. Porter spoke to how fossil fuel subsidies enable oil and gas companies to leave communities with the burdens of their dirty business. 

With multiple bills focused on offshore drilling, provisions in the Build Back Better Act, and likely more legislation to come, these California members are standing up for clean beaches, coastal economies, and work to hold the fossil fuel industry responsible for the damage it causes.

About the Authors

Valerie Cleland

Oceans Advocate, Nature Program

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