The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

A Look Back at the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Forty-one Years Later, Have Things Changed?

by CiCi O'Donnell

Workers wrangle tarry straw near Santa Barbara. Cleaning 100,000 barrels of crude oil off the coast in 1969 was a mammoth undertaking. Photo: Bob Duncan
Workers wrangle tarry straw near Santa Barbara. Cleaning 100,000 barrels of crude oil off the coast in 1969 was a mammoth undertaking. Photo: Bob Duncan

In 1969, Santa Barbara suffered a devastating oil spill that affected 35 miles of coastline and killed thousands of marine animals. As a direct consequence, California banned new offshore drilling for 16 years and passed stronger environmental laws. In light of the recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, Santa Barbara's spill may still have lessons to teach us.

Back in 1966, despite local protest and requests by local government for a review of environmental impacts, the federal government permitted oil companies to drill off the coast of Santa Barbara County. In particular, the United States Geological Survey allowed Union Oil, now Unocal, to use a shorter casing on the pipe that extracts oil from the well. The casing is designed to reinforce the well to prevent blowouts.

In January of 1969, when the crew of Platform A tried to extract a pipe from the well, pressure inside began to build. An emergency attempt to cap the well caused a further increase of pressure, cracking the casing and the seafloor. It took the crew 11 days to seal the well, while 100,000 barrels of oil leaked out. Wind and currents dispersed the oil over 800 square miles.

The spill caused massive environmental damage. Oil suffocated dolphins and seals and poisoned other animals. Birds soaked in tar were picked up by volunteers who bathed and medicated them, but even these birds had a survival rate of less than 30%. Dispersants used to break up the oil were also problematic. These chemicals stripped feathers of the natural waterproofing that helps keeps birds afloat. Birds and animals that were able to avoid the oil were displaced from their previous habitats. Small boats scooped up oil from the surface of the ocean, while straw was spread on the beaches to soak up the oil. Rocks were steam cleaned, cooking the creatures attached.

Political Fallout

In the days immediately following the news of the spill, local artist Bud Bottoms founded a community activist organization called Get Oil Out! or GOO! This group kept up media attention on the spill and its consequences, and claims to be the first environmental grassroots group in the country. Eventually, Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel admitted partial responsibility for the permit that allowed Union Oil to use the inferior casing that caused the leak. Union Oil was hit with lawsuits and lost millions of dollars in payments to local businesses and for clean-up efforts. A group of concerned faculty at UC Santa Barbara created the first environmental studies program in the country.

Though oil production was permitted to continue, California banned new drilling operations for 16 years. The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969 and the California Environmental Quality Act ensured that future permits would require a formalized review of environmental impacts. History Repeats Itself

The coast of Louisiana is in some ways very similar to Santa Barbara. Both have a strong fishing industry, depend heavily on tourism, and are the sites of rare ecosystems with endangered species. But the spill in the gulf is far worse, and despite laws like NEPA, the federal government has been lenient with the oil industry.

The Minerals Management Services (MMS), the federal agency now responsible for offshore drilling, has allowed the oil industry to set their own standards for operations and safety equipment. In particular, there is no standard for or inspection of the design or installation of blowout preventers, hydraulic valves designed to cut off gas in case of an emergency. Further, the MMS has been giving companies waivers from full environmental reviews. Though these waivers are supposed to be given only for projects with minimal risk to the environment, a regulation that requires the MMS to respond to drilling requests within 30 days has led the agency to issue exemptions when they were unwarranted.

On April 20, 2010, a British Petroleum (BP) oil rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 workers and spilling thousands of barrels of oil daily. A conservative estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the leak at 5000 barrels per day. BP's worst case estimate is 60,000 barrels a day. At the lesser rate, the gulf spill would have surpassed the Santa Barbara incident by May 18. On May 23, the governor of Louisiana stated that 65 miles of coast were affected. Locals have reported oil in sensitive ecosystems. The wildlife death toll continues to increase with the oil seeping into the marshes, wetlands, and beaches. Protective structures have been put in place around some of these sensitive areas, but experts are worried that the approaching storm season will have devastating consequences. The EPA has criticized BP for using a toxic dispersant when alternatives were available. Additionally, scientists are concerned about the unknown effects of the oil spill on the underwater ecosystem of the gulf.

Current Fallout

Multiple lawsuits seek damages from BP, which is currently spending $10 million per day to stop the leak and clean up the oil. Before the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, only those who had been physically touched by oil could collect damages. But in 1990 Congress lifted that restriction. Now anyone who has suffered economic loss due to the spill can file a claim.

President Obama has issued a temporary moratorium on new drilling projects, though MMS continues to grant waivers to current projects. Obama's plans to increase offshore drilling are now stalled in Congress. He has also proposed dividing the MMS to reduce conflicts of interest. Currently, the MMS collects royalties from oil companies and regulates them.

CiCi O'Donnell is a graduate student in environmental communication studies at San Jose State University.


Straw in bales awaits being spread on beaches in an attempt to absorb the oil from the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Cleanup took months. Photo: Bob Duncan