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As oil prices crashed, tankers idled off California—with unknown consequences

National Geographic interviewed Yifang Zhu, professor of environmental health sciences and associate dean for academic programs at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, about the potential impact of the quadrupling of the number of oil tankers anchored offshore from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in April because of the pandemic. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Giant ships lurked off the California coast for weeks in April and May, their bellies full of up to 20 million barrels of oil. This floating cache, enough to support the energy needs of the entire U.S. for a day, sat aboard an idling fleet that pumped out tons of pollutants, according to a new analysis performed by the University of College London and shared with National Geographic. These emissions could ultimately affect the long-term health of coastal communities—many of them already at risk and underserved—and they added tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Despite U.S. energy demand plummeting to record lows due to the coronavirus crisis, oil kept getting pumped out of the ground. The resulting oversupply taxed the limits of U.S. storage capacity. Oil trade groups spoke of a scramble to fill up empty pipelines or rail cars, but the most popular option was to charter and fill giant oil tankers. These tankers and their sea-size loads of oil began idling a few miles offshore from major shipping centers around the world, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.