01 • 18 • 2022

Southern California Oil Spill: Unified Command Officially Concludes Cleanup

By Julia Chunn

On October 2nd, 2021, disaster struck off Orange County, CA when an offshore drilling pipeline ruptured, releasing an estimated 24,696 gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean. The 13 square mile oil slick wreaked havoc on both the environment and communities, harming marine life, damaging sensitive habitats, triggering beach closures, and washing as far south as Mexico. Now, after three long months and enormous effort from trained professionals and volunteers, we are happy to report that all shoreline segments impacted by the spill were recently signed off by Unified Command as clean of oil.

Unified Command, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife, Orange Co., San Diego Co., and Amplify Energy, employed a three phase clean-up approach. The first response phase included the active assessment, monitoring and cleanup of the ocean and shoreline, with crews working in different coastal segments to remove oil or tarballs. These crews implement shoreline treatment recommendations by habitat type. As shoreline segments met clean up endpoints and were “signed off”, the response entered phase two. The last phase, which is where we are now, is called the Post-Sign Off Transition Period. The oil spill response organization will continue to respond to any additional reports of tarballs or oiling. The length of this transition period depends on the frequency of tarball and oiling incidents. 

Shortly after the spill, Surfrider Foundation was appointed as NGO Liaison by the Unified Command to support the cleanup effort and facilitate communication with other NGOs and the public. Recognizing a need in the cumbersome process of reporting found tarballs to Unified Command,  Surfrider launched a smartphone app to allow the public to easily photograph tarballs on the beach, and automatically record participants’ GPA location, time and the date of the observation. This technology streamlined the process of compiling thousands of observations into an easy to use crowd source map. Daily updates were submitted to the CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife to inform shoreline cleanup and assessment activities throughout the oil spill response phase. With shoreline clean up efforts concluded, the app will allow regular beach users to report tarballs that may appear over time, thus reactivating clean-up efforts. 

More than 1,100 reports have been submitted to the crowd source map to-date. It is important to note there is a small amount of background tarballs that appear on Southern California Beaches due to natural seepage. However, these tarballs are usually well weathered, and chemical testing can identify if they match the oil from the Oct 2nd spill or not. This will likely not be the last time we see oil and tar on California beaches and having these tools to empower community engagement will improve clean-up efforts and accountability in the long term. Surfrider will advocate that all coastal jurisdictions add the suite of technology created in partnership with esri to their Area Contingency Plans, ready to deploy from the very beginning should another spill occur.

Surfrider would like to express our deep appreciation to all the cleanup workers, government officials and volunteers for their efforts to clean our coastal environment. Nevertheless, much work remains in the coming months and years to ensure that the responsible party is held accountable and that the environment and communities are fully restored. Below is a summary of Surfrider Foundation’s priorities and ongoing activities. 

Environmental Restoration/ Polluter Accountability

Surfrider is working to ensure the responsible party, Amplify Energy, is held fully accountable for the spill through the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, which determines the appropriate type and amount of restoration needed to offset impacts to fisheries, wildlife, habitats, and human uses impacted by oil spills. Surfrider's priority is to ensure the full impact of the spill is assessed, including ecological and socioeconomic impacts, and that restoration opportunities are maximized. This is no small task. The oil spill caused extensive environmental damage with cleanup workers removing 549,658 lbs of tarballs, oiled sand and debris from the shoreline alone. The spill also caused grave impacts to communities and businesses through disruption of coastal recreation and tourism, and a fishery closure of 642 square miles that was in effect for two months. To ensure these impacts are accounted for and mitigated, we will engage directly with NOAA and other trustee agencies as they assess damages and develop a restoration plan for the responsible party to fund or implement. We are also partnering with the Environmental Defense Center, a key player in the aftermath of the 2015 Refugio oil spill, to utilize their expertise in this area. 

Also of note, in late December a federal grand jury announced criminal negligence charges against Amplify Energy. The Orange County District Attorney has an open criminal investigation into the oil spill as well. For more information see the LA Times article and questions about the investigation can be sent to

Ending Offshore Drilling in California

Surfrider will continue to advocate for the safe and responsible decommissioning of existing oil rigs off California. Following the oil spill, Surfrider joined the Center for Biological Diversity and others in petitioning the Department of Interior to cancel existing oil and gas leases off the California coast. Surfrider is also calling on the California Legislature to evaluate options to expedite the decommissioning process. There is enthusiasm from state lawmakers to address decommissioning in the coming session, and Surfrider will be engaging in the 2022 session to assess legislative opportunities. 

Banning New Offshore Drilling

Surfrider is uniting our national network to urge Congress to permanently ban new offshore drilling in U.S. waters. As part of our Stop Offshore Drilling campaign we are meeting with Congressional offices, organizing business and industry partners, passing local government resolutions, and generating media coverage to compel immediate action. In late 2021, we nearly helped pass the Build Back Better Act which would have prohibited new oil and gas drilling in the Pacific, Atlantic, Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While we were disappointed to see this bill fall short, we will continue to advocate for Congress to pass a permanent ban on new offshore drilling in 2022. 

Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to engage!