Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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National TV news coverage of the California oil spill exposes the hidden costs of relying on fossil fuels

Though it’s received widespread coverage, this disaster is just one of many stories of dirty energy companies harming communities and habitats across the country

The recent offshore oil pipeline breach in California, which has dumped as much as 144,000 gallons of crude into the waters off the state’s southern coast, has been widely reported on by national TV news. Between October 3-6, programs across corporate broadcast and cable TV news aired 147 segments on the oil spill.

But while the coverage has shone a light on the very real environmental, health, and economic harms to communities that live near fossil fuel infrastructure, it has also exposed a disparity in media between which communities' stories are told and which bad actors are held to account.

As CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir pointed out: “We need to widen out the big picture. These sorts of leaks happen all the time all over the world. The reason this one is so newsworthy is where it is happening, on some of the most popular beaches in southern California, in the wealthy communities of Orange County.”

This oil spill is not an isolated event and not even representative of the damage and risk borne by mostly marginalized communities and communities of color all across the country that are either living with or fighting the advancement of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Early reporting of the oil spill covered its immediate impacts -- toxic fumes, dead fish and wildlife, closed beaches and canceled events. And as the disaster unfolded, coverage was dominated by reports that the company responsible for the leak, Amplify Energy Co., has a long history of safety violations and financial instability and reportedly failed to alert authorities of the breach for at least 12 hours from when it was first detected.

As this story continues to unfold, TV news should do more “big picture” reporting tying it to other fossil fuel stories playing out all over the country, to propel a national discussion on the cost of our dependency on fossil fuels -- and the dangers inherent in our aging, dirty energy infrastructure.

  • National TV news put a spotlight on a local oil spill disaster -- but there are many more stories to tell

    Coverage of the oil spill off the southern coast of California has been significant. Over four days, from Sunday, October 3 -- when the public first learned of the leak -- through Wednesday, October 6, corporate broadcast and cable TV news aired a combined 147 segments on the spill.

    ABC and NBC aired 15 segments each about the spill and CBS aired 13 segments across its morning and evening news shows during the studied time period -- for a total of 43 segments across all three broadcast networks. CNN aired the most spill segments on cable news with 50. MSNBC aired 33 on the oil spill, and Fox aired significantly less than its cable news counterparts with just 21 segments.

    The airtime dedicated to the damage caused by the spill, clean-up efforts, and understanding of how the leak happened and who is responsible has been exceptional -- but mostly because so many stories of fossil fuel disasters go untold by TV news. Unfortunately, many of the communities harmed by fossil fuel infrastructure do not receive nearly this much close coverage.

    In the wake of Hurricane Ida, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard, which responded to thousands of reported incidents of contamination, ultimately found 81 spills that required further investigation. Air pollution from refineries and other industrial facilities went undetected because the storm knocked out the area’s air monitoring equipment, but it did not go unnoticed with local monitors and residents reporting toxic fumes. According to a report by InsideClimate News:

  • In the days following Ida, Naomi Yoder, staff scientist with the environmental group Healthy Gulf, flew twice over the Gulf of Mexico and southern Louisiana, surveying what Ida left behind.

    Two things stood out, Yoder said: industrial plants sending plumes of dirty, smelly smoke into the air from flare stacks, and the many shiny oil or chemical spill slicks floating on Gulf waters.

    Flying over one refinery, Yoder said, the rotten eggs smell of sulfur dioxide was overwhelming. “A couple of us got sick” and vomited, Yoder said. “What really stood out was the number of spills dispersed out there in the marshes and in the Gulf. There are spills everywhere. It is like death by a thousand cuts. How are we supposed to ever clean all this up?”

  • The extent of the pollution and impact from the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Ida is still unknown. And while TV news networks dedicated wall-to-wall coverage of Ida’s landfall in Louisiana, almost no time has been invested in telling the story of the environmental disaster that was left in its wake.

    In May, the Colonial Pipeline on the East Coast made national headlines after it was taken offline by a cyber attack. At the time of the incident the company’s owner was under investigation for a spill that had leaked at least 1.2 million gallons of gasoline into communities located along the southern portion of the pipeline. But even as the pipeline was in the spotlight, Media Matters found that national cable and corporate broadcast TV news never incorporated that detail into the attack’s expansive coverage, let alone covered it as a discrete story.

    And just days before the oil spill in California, Canadian oil company Enbridge announced that its Line 3 pipeline -- a controversial project which would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the American Midwest by crossing and endangering sovereign tribal lands and water in Minnesota -- was nearly complete. The opposition to the pipeline, which has resulted in tickets or arrests of over 900 water protectors and their allies during protests along the route, has received scant attention by TV news -- despite the fact that Enbridge, which has a long history of leaks and spills including the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, has reportedly been colluding with local law enforcement to surveil, arrest, and intimidate demonstrators.

    These incidents represent just a snapshot of the stories that could widen the media’s picture of the cost of fossil fuels and make audiences more aware of the scale of these environmental damages and injustices, in addition to their implications for the climate crisis.

    Consistent coverage of such stories is vital because TV news viewers are otherwise left with a skewed understanding of who is most impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure and how pervasive the problem is. Moreover, as networks such as CNN and MSNBC fail to regularly illustrate the cost of fossil fuel extraction, production, and transportation to communities across the country, Fox News repeatedly casts fossil fuel infrastructure as a job creator and economic driver.

    TV news must continue to hold Amplify Energy accountable and scrutinize federal oversight of oil drilling

    Paramount in the oil spill coverage has been reporting centered around the company responsible for the leaked pipeline, Amplify Energy -- including details about its past violations and financial instability, its role in investigating the cause of the link, and ultimately its liability.

    On Monday, October 4, a day after the story broke, the Los Angeles Times filed a story that detailed Amplify Energy’s “long record of federal noncompliance incidents and violations.” Importantly, it also noted the concerns that environmental groups have been raising for years about the conditions of the aging offshore oil infrastructure and lack of adequate federal oversight.

    The company’s history of violations was first reported by national TV news on the October 4 edition of CNN’s At This Hour with Kate Bolduan, which discussed the Los Angeles Times’ story in an interview with Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 4, 2021, episode of CNN's At This Hour With Kate Bolduan

  • Notably, 21% of coverage of the Amplify Energy spill including and since that segment aired has noted this important context. An additional detail that emerged on Tuesday about the reported 12-hour delay between when the leak was detected on Friday and when Amplify Energy alerted authorities on Saturday -- has dominated the most recent coverage while further painting an unfavorable picture of the company’s responsibility.

    But even if Amplify Energy is ultimately not found negligent, coverage of these details is essential in pushing for greater scrutiny of our regulatory and oversight processes. These disasters, though unfortunate, bring national attention to the risks inherent in our dependency on dirty energy and give momentum to efforts aimed at transitioning away from fossil fuels.

    The California oil spill should advance the national conversation about transitioning to a clean energy economy

    Just as this disaster can drive greater scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry, it can also give coverage to efforts aimed at transitioning to a clean energy economy. The best coverage we found, though far too little, not only provided important details on the damages from the spill and the company responsible for it, but also put this disaster in the context of federal efforts to scale back oil and gas drilling -- and the scientific warnings calling for a transition away from fossil fuels.

    A handful of programs on CNN and MSNBC invited environmental advocates, experts, and state decisionmakers to discuss the ecological disaster unfolding in California, generating some of the most substantive coverage of the spill over the course of the four days we reviewed.

    On October 3, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) appeared on MSNBC’s Alex Witt Reports, telling the host that these types of incidents are why he and others are pushing to end subsidies to oil and gas companies.

    “Right now they actually get special treatment, better terms than renewable energy or any other industry in increasing drilling and oil,” Khanna explained. “We're seeing the consequences over and over of our overreliance on fossil fuels and we need to end those subsidies.”

    That same day, California State Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris appeared on CNN Newsroom with Pamela Brown, reflecting on the impact of the spill on her community and called for an end to offshore drilling off the coast of California.

    On October 4, climate scientist Michael Mann on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports told guest host Geoff Bennett that the spill is the “latest reminder of the hidden costs of our addiction to fossil fuels, of our reliance on fossil fuels,” and warned that “we have to get off of this path. We have to transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy as quickly as possible at this point.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 4, 2021, episode of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports

  • Later that evening on MSNBC, Oceana chief policy officer for North America Jackie Savitz appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show to convey a similar message, telling guest host Ali Velshi that “when we drill, we spill. It's not a matter of if we're going to spill the oil. It's just a matter of when, and we've seen that time and time again.” Savitz went on to explain why it is time to stop all leasing for any new oil and gas development offshore and to better protect our waters until drilling is phased out:

  • JACKIE SAVITZ (OCEANA CHIEF POLICY OFFICER): If we can get that done, we can prevent some future spills. But we still have this historic legacy that also needs to be addressed. And that's going to require better inspections. We're going to need penalties that actually create an incentive to prevent spills. Right now they don't really. And the fact of the matter is the oil and gas industry is sitting on so many active leases for oil and gas. … Seventy-five percent of it is either unused or not producing, and that amounts to about 7,000 to 8,000 unused approved permits to drill. And so when we talk about stopping the expansion of offshore drilling, the oil and gas industry, you know, seems to think that's such a horrible thing, but in the meantime, they have more leases to drill than they could ever possibly even use.

  • On October 5, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) appeared on MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart Reports to discuss a number of issues including the California oil spill. Padilla echoed the earlier sentiments by calling for an end to offshore drilling to both protect against future disasters and the current climate crisis.

    And on the October 6 edition of MSNBC’s Katy Tur Reports, SurfRider Foundation CEO Chad Nelson also called for an end to drilling, telling guest host Geoff Bennett: “Drilling is spilling. And you hear about loose regulations, lack of notification. So it is really essential. If we want to stop seeing these kinds of impacts, we ultimately need to stop drilling in our oceans and ultimately get off oil.”

    Like extreme weather, these events are stark reminders of why we need to transition to a clean energy economy -- and as with extreme weather, it is the role of the media to connect the dots between these pressing issues and available solutions. Such coverage can strengthen the call for action that moves us away from dirty energy sources while demanding tighter regulation of fossil fuels production until they are phased out.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America and World News Tonight, CBS’ This Morning and Evening News, and NBC’s Today and Nightly News and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for mention of any of the terms “California,” “Amplify Energy,” “Huntington Beach,” “Newport Beach,” “Laguna Beach,” or “Orange County” within close proximity of any of the terms “pipeline,” “oil,” “leak,” “spill,” “anchor,” or “crude” from October 3-6, 2021.

    We also searched transcripts in the Nexis database for the broadcast shows described above for any of the terms “California,” “Amplify Energy,” “Huntington Beach,” “Newport Beach,” “Laguna Beach,” or “Orange County” within the same transcript as any of the terms “pipeline,” “oil,” “leak,” “spill,” “anchor,” or “crude” from October 3-6, 2021.

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the California oil spill was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the incident. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussing the spill with one another.

    We then reviewed the identified segments to determine whether or not the company responsible for the spill had been identified, the spill had been linked to the history of oil spills in the region, or the spill had been discussed in relation to President Joe Biden’s plan to reduce our dependence on oil and gas.