Currently, 5,000 barrels of oil are flowing into the water off the Louisiana coast every day.
Since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, an estimated 3.5 million gallons have leaked into the water, putting it on track to surpass the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill by the end of this month.
While concerns over the marine life and ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico increase nationwide, in California, oil rigs operate as close as 3.7 miles from the coast.
“Oil spills are happening all the time because we’re moving so much oil around,” said Paul Barber, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA. “We’re doing so much of it that we’re still going to have accidents.”
In case of an oil spill off the coast of California, the problem would be the proximity of the oil rigs to the mainland. If an oil spill was to happen, there would not be enough time to prepare a response, according to Richard Ambrose, the director of the environmental science and engineering program at UCLA.
“On the Gulf, they had weeks,” Ambrose said. “If we have a spill here, we won’t have enough time to prepare.”
The possibilities of an oil spill in California at the magnitude of the Gulf spill are relatively low because of the safety regulations enacted after the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, in which 200,000 gallons of oil spread over 800 square miles of water and greatly affected marine life. The event sparked the beginning of the environmental conservation movement and led to the first nationwide Earth Day the following year.
Ambrose, who is involved in actively preventing oil spills in California through his participation in numerous organizations such as the California Coastal Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ocean Protection Council, said there are no guarantees that there will not be future oil spills.
The Gulf spill, which began with an accident on an oil rig 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, has resulted in damage to oceanic wildlife and has put a stop to the fishing industry, a main source of income for residents of the area.
The impacts of a spill in California would be similar to the Gulf spill but on a smaller scale. It would have an impact on valuable natural resources as well as wildlife, especially in the Channel Islands if it reached there, but would not last as long or have as big of an economic impact, Ambrose said.
The difficulty of cleaning up oil spills endangers environments like the one off the coast of Louisiana, which has a very diverse and fragile ecosystem that could take years to recover. Part of the reason for the slow recovery is that only a very small fraction of the oil is ever cleaned up, Barber said.
The Gulf spill has prompted strong criticism from environmental conservationists, including students such as Becky Miller, president of the student group E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity at UCLA, which advocates sustainability and ecological responsibility.
“It definitely concerns me that it can happen in California as much as in other places,” Miller said. “But I feel a stronger attachment to the marine ecosystem here.”
After unsuccessful responses to the oil spill by BP, which claims to be an environmentally conscious company, and the failure of the government to have a prepared response for an oil spill of this magnitude, regulations for offshore drilling have come under scrutiny.
While the possibilities of such an event occurring in California are low, Ambrose said the issue is definitely something for Californians to be concerned about.
“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to avoid an accident,” he said.