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Santa Barbara Oil Spills, Then and Now

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January-29-AP-photo-AOGHS

In 1969, the beaches of Santa Barbara, California were inundated with oil from a nearby spill. This event galvanized environmentalists both locally and around the nation. I use the Santa Barbara oil spill to help set up Out of Sight, which is coming out officially in 13 days. So buy your copies now. Anyway, an excerpt:

Fifty-eight years later, in 1969, public outrage over corporate behavior again revolved around disturbing images that flashed before Americans’ eyes. Two events that year changed Americans’ views on how industry should treat the environment. First, on January 28, the largest oil spill to that point in American history took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California when a well blew out on an oil platform owned by Union Oil. Up to 100,000 barrels spilled. People watching their evening news saw sea lions and birds covered in oil, dead fish and marine wildlife, and a paradise spoiled.

The oil industry had long played a controversial role in southern California. As the state became known for its beaches, tourists and developers protested the oil industry’s presence in that beautiful part of the country. Beachgoers in the 1920s found themselves between the picturesque Pacific and a sea of oil derricks. Local residents, led by oil workers’ unions, demanded the industry maintain the character of their towns and beaches. The oil workers unions held beach clean-ups, advocated for drilling limits, and wanted more their towns than the filth of oil pollution. By the 1960s, much of the production had moved offshore, but oil derricks and refineries remained a major feature of the southern California landscape.

When the spill took place, the people of Santa Barbara and southern California responded quickly. An organization named Get Oil Out (GOO) quickly developed. Led by Santa Barbara resident Bud Bottoms, GOO urged people to cut back on driving and boycott gas stations that received fuel from Union Oil. It lobbied to ban all oil drilling off of California and succeeded in enacting new regulations when drilling did resume. Thomas Storke, editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote, “Never in my long lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level. This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara – it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.” Union Oil suffered greater repercussions for this environmental disaster than any corporation in U.S. history to that time. Company president Fred Hartley couldn’t understand, saying, “I am amazed at the publicity for a loss of a few birds.” The spill made people around the nation realize the importance of preserving the landscapes they loved from industrialists. In the two years after the oil spill, national membership in the Sierra Club doubled. The state banned new leases for drilling on offshore state lands, although existing leases continued to operate. Today, companies do still drill in California, but the visual impact to tourists is much lower than a half-century ago.

The oil spill helped lead to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, shepherded through Congress by Scoop Jackson who is vilified by progressives today for his defense policy but was one of the most important environmentalists in Senate history.

It may not be as bad as 1969, but another oil spill is now polluting the Santa Barbara beaches:

After flowing from the pipeline, crude pooled in a culvert before spilling into the Pacific, where it created a four-mile-long sheen extending about 50 yards into the water. Officials said winds could send the oil another four miles south toward Isla Vista.

The pipeline, built in 1991 and designed to carry about 150,000 barrels of oil per day, is owned by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, which said in a statement that it shut down the pipe. The culvert was also blocked to prevent more oil from flowing into the ocean, the company said.

By late Tuesday, a thick layer of crude had begun to wash ashore, with black tar smearing the rocks as the brackish tides arrived.

“It is horrible,” said Brett Connors, 35, a producer from Santa Monica who said he spotted sea lions swimming in the oil slick. “You want to jump in there and save them.”

The reality is that the oil industry is far too lightly regulated as whether in Santa Barbara, Alaska, or off of the Louisiana coast, our energy infrastructure fails over and over to protect the nation’s fragile ecosystems. If the spills are bad enough, like the BP spill, public outrage can again arise, but ultimately very little has changed since that spill, unlike after the original Santa Barbara spill. The social movement to hold corporations accountable for environmental disasters is not what it was in 1969, in part because so many jobs are now outsourced that working people fear any kind of environmental protections will throw them on the street. This shift in attitude is just one of the many cascading effects of the global race to the bottom, a race that benefits corporations at each and every step.

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