Don’t Forget Federal Aspect of Huntington Beach Oil Spill

By John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California State Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at
October 7, 2021 Updated: October 7, 2021


I spent almost all my 34 years in California in Huntington Beach, the scene of the recent hideous oil spill. I left three years ago only because it became too expensive. I still visit twice a week, including since the oil disaster, because it’s a great place and most of my friends are there. The beach now largely is deserted but for the cleanup workers.

If you drive around the city, evidence of its past and present as a center of oil production is everywhere. About 15 oil wells still pump Texas tea. If you look carefully, you can see the pumps, going up and down, tucked behind homes and businesses. Restaurants display pictures of the tall derricks from decades ago.

Offshore, you can see the oil platforms, lately intermixed with anchored cargo ships that can’t get ashore to unload. The downtown high school football team is the Oilers.

The city is sometimes still called Oil City. But that clashes with its better-known name: Surf City. Tourism is exemplified by the 1.5 million who would have attended the third day of the Huntington Beach Air Show on Oct. 3 if it hadn’t been canceled due to the spill. That was a giant blow to tourism, since only in July had the city declared an end to its COVID-19 emergency, which last year almost wiped out tourism.

VoiceofOC reported the company in charge of the oil pipeline, Amplify Energy and its Beta Offshore Division, is facing “waves of lawsuits.” City, county, state and federal investigations are going forward.

But I would suggest people not forget to investigate the role the federal government might have played in the disaster. On Oct. 5, the four members of Congress representing the affected area wrote a letter (pdf) to President Joe Biden. It’s worth quoting the main sections, emphasis added:

“We as Members of Congress who represent Southern California demand that your Administration immediately open a full federal investigation into the pipeline’s history of violations, the causes of the spill, any failures or delays by federal officials to sufficiently respond to the spill as quickly as possible, and whether federal officials engaged in an effort to conceal these failures and delays.

“New reports state that federal officials may have known of this leak at least 10 hours before it was made public. This is concerning as prompt detection of a pipeline failure is essential to minimizing impacts to the community and our local ecosystems. We also have major concerns that previous federal inspections of the Amplify Energy Corp. / BETA Offshore oil operation failed to identify incidents of negligence that possibly led to the spill. The citizens of Southern California deserve a fully transparent federal investigation that provides clear information to the public. This includes investigating the responsible party’s response to this tragic spill and the role the federal government to promptly respond to protect coastal communities and wildlife.”

It’s signed by Reps. Michelle Steel, Ken Calvert, Darrell Issa, and Young Kim.

The federal government in the past century took over wide swaths of American life from citizens, local governments and state governments. Supposedly, it was to do a better job of maintaining our health and prosperity. Yet time and time again, it has failed to do its basic job of protecting us.

Right on the day the beach was shut down, Oct. 3, environmentalists demanded all offshore oil drilling be shut down.

“[T]he reality is oil infrastructure fails, no matter how careful we try to be,” said Chad Nelson, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation. “The real answer here is to get off fossil fuels if we want to see these impacts go away. It’s an unfortunate reality when we are moving oil around.”

But the global economy, including in California, still runs on oil. Putting everybody in Teslas will never be the answer.

The pipeline that broke and spewed out the oil reportedly was installed in 1980—41 years ago. A simple question: In these highly computerized times, why weren’t sensors installed along the pipeline to detect spills? Wouldn’t that have been cheaper than the hundreds of millions of dollars the oil spill will cost? Why is my arm better protected with a pulse-detecting Apple Watch that notifies me of an irregular heartbeat?

Maybe the smartest man I ever met was Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman. He could also easily summarize complex issues for laymen. When something like this happened, he would suggest: First look to a government problem. Maybe the private sector really is at fault. But it’s best to initially look to the government because it’s so pervasive in our lives and it’s often overlooked.

In the case of the Huntington Beach oil spill, the question is: What could federal regulators have done to prevent it?

John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California State Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at