A Billion-dollar Oil Spill May be on its Way to SF Bay

Mar 12, 2019

In 2010, a pipeline burst and spilled heavy crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Response agencies tried to clean up the oil but gave up after five years and over a billion dollars spent. Almost a decade later, oil remains at the bottom of the river and the ecosystem has yet to recover.

“If a spill of heavy crude oil happened in San Francisco Bay today, the effects would be equally disastrous and irreversible,” says Baykeeper attorney Ben Eichenberg. “Yet millions of gallons of heavy crude likely crisscross the Bay by tanker every year, with no effective cleanup plan for a spill.”

In its undiluted form, heavy non-floating oils like tar sands, Venezuelan crude, Mexican Maya crude, asphalt, coal tar, and bunker fuels sink quickly, smothering plants and aquatic animals.

That makes it virtually impossible to remove from waterways, because existing cleanup technology focuses almost exclusively on removing oil that floats on the water’s surface.

And the risk of a destructive heavy oil spill in the Bay is growing. Oil companies are trying to significantly ramp up the refining and transport of heavy crude in the Bay and throughout California. 

Baykeeper is taking action to address this threat with new state legislation. Our proposed bill will increase the financial requirements on companies transporting heavy oils, improve monitoring, and strengthen spill response tools to deal with heavy crude oil.

Assembly Bill (AB) 936 is a critical step to reduce the harm to California’s waters, shorelines, and wildlife from a spill of heavy crude. We’re partnering with Assembly Member Robert Rivas and the Natural Resource Defense Council to bring this issue before the legislature.

How AB 936 Tackles the Threat of a Heavy Oil Spill:

1. The Polluter Pays. Companies that transport hazardous heavy oils should be fully accountable for the associated risks. AB 936 increases the financial responsibility for transporting heavy oils, to more completely account for the high cost of cleanup and containment.  

2. Transparency & Tracking. Heavy crude oil is already being transported throughout the state by rail, truck, and tanker in large quantities—but there’s no monitoring of exactly how much, when, or where. AB 936 would require companies to provide advance notice of heavy oils transport in California to allow agencies to be better prepared for a spill.

3. Better Cleanup Tools. Currently, the equipment needed to manage a heavy crude spill in the Bay doesn’t have to be readily available locally or even in the state. AB 936 requires oil spill equipment to be pre-positioned in California for rapid response, and certification that requires response companies to demonstrate they are equipped to manage heavy crude spills specifically.

The bill is set to be considered in the current state legislative term. Baykeeper and our partners will continue advocating for stronger protections to prepare for a destructive crude oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

Kalamazoo River spill

Above: oiled vegetation in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan following a tar sands oil spill in 2010. Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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