When energy companies tell you an oil spill is "just a few barrels" its safe to assume its much worse than that. Estimates for the Santa Barbara oil spill have gone from a few barrels, to 21,000 gallons and now company officials are saying that as many as 105,000 gallons of crude oil may have spilled from the ruptured pipeline.
The pipeline that ruptured is 24 inches in diameter and has been leaking oil near Refugio State Beach which happens to be a protected state park. The spill also comes just before Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer tourist season.
The spill highlights the dangers of the pipeline and brings new attention to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline currently being debated by government officials. While Keystone XL lobbyists claim the pipeline is safer than rail by oil the latest spill highlights that pipelines, especially those carrying heavy grades of oil, are equally prone to catastrophic spills.
Plains All American Pipeline, the Houston-based owner of the pipeline, based the new spill estaimtes on the typical flow rate of oil and the elevation of the pipeline, said Rick McMichael, the company's director of pipeline operations. It is unclear why this calculation was not disclosed to the public initially and points to an industry culture of hiding the truth from public eyes.
And given the pipeline is underground, a particularly dangerous construction method, it will take a few days to determine just how much crude oil was actually spilled. It's entirely possible the spill is much larger than even the latest estimate.
Plains Chairman Greg Armstrong said he was deeply sorry for the spill yet refused to acknowledge why the public, and government officials, were not immediately notified of the magnitude of the spill.
"We apologize for the damage that has been done to the wildlife and to the environment, and we're very sorry for the disruption and inconvenience that it has caused the citizens and visitors of this area," he said.
"This spill is unlike ones that we've responded to in the past." said Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams. The spill began inland, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authority, but has reached the shoreline and the water, where the Coast Guard is now responsible. Both agencies are now working on the case together.
"Oil recovery tends to be a complicated process that involves a lot of manual labor," Williams said. "It can be a slow process, but we want to make sure that we do it right so we can get the beaches back to their pristine condition."
In addition to damaging tourist beaches the spill has damaged pristine wildlife habitat, although the full extent of the damage is yet to be determined. The spill will likely produce localized effects similar to the catastrophic Deep Horizon still in the Gulf of Mexico, which has caused long lasting damage to marine ecosystems.