In California, we are the green leader. The state that sets the standard for all things environmentally friendly and people who want to keep the ocean blue. It’s no surprise that the Trump Administration’s proposal to open 90 recent of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to offshore oil drilling is a non-starter in our state. The Pacific Coast has been closed to offshore oil drilling for decades. No new leases have been issued in California state waters since 1969, which was the year of the environmentally devastating Santa Barbara Oil spill. That was the year we landed on the moon and Vietnam was waging in the background of our rocketing space exploration.
It was 10:45 am on Tuesday January 28, 1969. Out in the ocean about five miles off the coast on a rig called Alpha operated by Union Oil is where it all began. A blowout occurred on Platform A which resulted in an uncontrolled flow of oil from a deep reservoir through five fissures in oil-bearing sands to the sea floor. The Santa Barbara oil spill released 4.2 million gallons of pollutant oil into the ocean and our beaches involving coastline, including the Channel Islands, as far north as Pismo Beach and as far south Mexico.
Nearly 3,700 seabirds were confirmed dead and many more likely unaccounted for, in particular gulls and grebes. The Sant Barbara Zoo was a rescue station for the birds to be cleaned up. Kelp fields were blackened with oil. Straw was brought in to sink the oil to the bottom of the ocean, or try and soak it up. The damage was so severe from this spill it became a community effort to clean it up. Popular backlash against oil companies grew into a public and national discussion.
“I don't like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life,” said Fred L. Hartley, President of Union Oil Co. at the time. “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”
Walter J. Hickle was the new US Secretary of the Interior then under President Richard Nixon. As overseer of the USGS, he was in part responsible for the waiver obtained by Union Oil for the shorter casing implicated in the blowout on Platform A. Hickle accepted responsibility and thus began the battle of the Federal government admitting to some degree it was at fault.
This spill was readily visible in aerial photographs and became a nationwide controversy and galvanizing moment in the environmental movement at that time. From this oil spill was born the California Coastal Commission, The State Lands Commission, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, and the first Earth Day happened partially as a result of the images that were spread from the first CIA spy plane used to map overhead imagery of the spill so measurements could be taken of its size.
“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,” said Thomas Storke, the then Editor of the Santa Barbara News Press.
Even In 1970 it was estimated the 226,000 metric tons of petroleum wastes per year were discharged on the sea surface by ships alone (SoBell, 1963), and the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, which was abolished by the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, stated pollution off the California coast had been a threat of increasing severity for the last 40 years.
There have been several other threats in the interim, including the battle against LNG in 2006-2007. Platform A leaked 1,130 gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel in 2008. Now comes the Trump Administration’s recent plans to institute offshore oil drilling which threatens 2.6 million jobs and nearly $180 billion in GDP, according to an analysis released by the non-profit Oceana, whose board members include Malibu resident Ted Danson. This is the sum total of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast of Florida economies that includes fishing, tourism and recreation plus their associated markets they support which are under threat from the Trump plan.
The Pacific Coast supports a diverse marine environment. Cold, nutrient rich waters attract and support the entire food chain from the bottom point at the tiny krill all the way up to the huge whale, plus some of the most lucrative fisheries in the nation. There are some 519 fish species, nearly 150 seabird species and more than 30 marine mammals, which means whales, dolphins and seals, five species of sea turtles and more than 5,000 species of invertebrates. Let’s not forget the millions of humans that come to he beach every year, winter and summer, to enjoy the seals frolicking in the water and the ocean waves crashing.
All of this, plus a healthy and clean environment, is risked for only two year’s worth of oil and one year’s worth of gas, an estimate based on recent economic factors and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) resource assessments. A Surfrider Foundation study estimates this new offshore drilling will yield just 920 days of oil supply at our current rate of consumption.
Today in Malibu a meeting was held to address the threat offshore oil drilling would have on our coastal economies and marine life. The speakers present were Malibu Township Council President Richard Lawrence, Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA 33 Dist), Jeremy Wolf from the Office of California State Senator Henry Stern (D- 27 Dist), Dr. Chad Nelsen from The Surfrider Foundation, Dayna Bochco from the California Coastal Commission, Nancy Hastings from the environmental non-profit Oceana and Damon Nagami form the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC).
The Trump Administration’s drafted five-year program reaches beyond his term, 2019 - 2024 for oil and gas development on the OCS. Trump seeks to expand future oil and gas leasing to nearly all U.S. waters, including the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and eastern Gulf of Mexico in the largest number of potential offshore lease sales ever proposed and puts our nation’s coastal communities, beaches, surf breaks and marine ecosystems at risk of oil spills. The Coastal Commission has jurisdiction over the sale of those leases. When things come to fisticuffs, Bochco from the Coastal Commission says it will take action.
“At that point the Coastal Commission and their staff will be looking at the Coastal Zone Management Act, which is the Federal law that is the interface between the two jurisdictions,” said Bochco. “California’s Coastal Management program already exists. It was approved in 1978. The contents of it are mostly what’s in the Coastal Act. When I talk about the Coastal Act, I am including the Management Program as well. We are the only agency that has any jurisdiction in Federal waters. If the Department of Interior after adopting the final leasing program proposes to hold an actual sale of these leases, the staff of the Coastal Commission will write a Consistency Determination. They’ll go through the Coastal Act and see which, if any, of their activities would interfere with our policies of the Coastal Act. This would be done with a staff report. We would have a public hearing so that everyone affected could weigh in. Then the Coastal Commission would vote to either approve or object to the Consistency Determination.”
According to a Pew Charitable Trust study, even when everything goes according to plan with the oil drilling process, thousands of tons of polluted water is released into the ocean in something called drilling muds. These muds are unregulated, even though they contain toxins regulated by the EPA and other agencies such as benzene, zinc, arsenic, radioactive materials and other contaminants. High concentrations of metals have been found around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico where at a single oil well discharges of up to 1,500 to 2,000 tons of waste materials were found, according to that same study.
According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll, support in our state for more drilling off the California coast has dropped to a record low. Most Democrats (81 percent) and independents (68 percent) and 45 percent of Republicans are opposed. All three West coast Governors, Jerry Brown (D-CA), Kate Brown (D-OR), and Jay Inslee (D-WA), in addition to the Governors of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are strongly opposed to expanded offshore oil drilling. They are representing the voices of their constituents in their respective states. In contrast, 73 percent of Californians are in favor of wind power and wave energy projects off the state’s coast.
“What saved us is Trump did something that was purely political but legally untenable,” said Congressman Lieu to a full house at the meeting. “Trump goes out to Florida and meets with the Republican Governor. He met with the members of Congress, several who are Republican who said do not do offshore oil drilling in Florida. So after the meeting he comes out and announces ok we’re not going to do offshore oil drilling in Florida. We’re exempting Florida from the plan. He put down two reasons. He said, one the local officials told me not to do offshore drilling. And second, Florida’s coastal economy was a big contributor to Florida’s economy. Well guess what? It turns out California’s coastal economy is actually bigger than Florida’s coastal economy. I also led a letter after reading the statement with Congressman Jared Huffman and Alan Lowenthal. We got 36 other cosigners. We sent it to Ryan Zinke saying hey California also opposes offshore oil drilling. And by the way our coastal economy is bigger than Florida’s. So under no legal standard whatsoever, Trump cannot exempt Florida and not exempt California.”
An oil spill is no small matter. It creates an environmental disaster of huge proportions that an area finds difficult to or never recovers from. The Gulf of Mexico is a dead zone due to the numerous oil spills and petroleum abuse it has endured. Here is just one example of what the California coast endured and an epicenter of a national controversy that ensued afterward. This is the time line of the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, compiled from 1970 historical documents from the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration inside the Department of Interior.
TIME LINE OF THE 1969 SANTA BARBARA OIL SPILL:
The initial flow of oil began on January 28, 1969 from a blowout on an offshore oil platform .
The oil was coming up through five cracks in the ocean bottom. Detergents were being spread in the area. Equipment to help stop the flow was flown in from Texas, and it took until noon on the January 29 before public officials, who were previously unaware of the situation, to become informed.
By January 30, there were now 390 square kilometers covered by the oil slick. Luckily offshore winds held the slick away from the coast.
By January 31, the slick grew to 520 square kilometers, and oil was beginning to come ashore at Rincon Beach.
By February 1, the oil was spread and Summerland, Carpinteria and Anacapa Island were threatened.
Oil finally came ashore February 4 in areas close to Rincon, and Anacapa Island was surrounded by oil. The slick was estimated at this to be between 520 and 1,300 square kilometers in size.
By February 5, the Santa Barbara harbor was filled with oil and closed; some oil was in the Ventura Marina, and the slick was estimated to be 2,080 square kilometers in area.
By February 6, a 32 km stretch of mainland had been polluted by the oil.
On February 7, drilling mud was being brought from Los Angeles to be pumped into the well. In order to soak up or sink the floating oil, 2,300 metric tons of straw were being brought in from the San Joaquin and Antelope Valleys per day, and at least 18 metric tons of talc and diatomaceous earth had been delivered.
There was confusion as to the amount of oil which was being released during the early days of the spill. On January 30, Union Oil officials claimed the Santa Barbara News Press misquoted them in stating that the seep was producing 5,000 barrels (726 metric tons) per day. Jerry Luboviski, Communications Director for Union Oil in Los Angeles, claimed that the rate was 500 barrels (72.6 metric tons) per day.
Independently, Alan A. Allen, using color aerial photographs and the work of Blokker to help support thickness estimates, estimated the flow on February 2 to be a minimum of 726 metric tons per day. If the flow were 500 barrels (72.6 metric tons) per day, as estimated by "knowledgeable engineers" (Editor's Note in Jones et al 1969), a slick of 78 square kilometers would have been formed in three days. Instead, a slick of 520 square kilometers was formed in three days.
On February 18, Union Oil estimated the flow which had been renewed by that date to be between .4 and 1.4 metric tons per day. A Fish and Game estimate was 6.9 metric tons per day, and a revised Union Oil estimate was between 6.9 and 13.8 metric tons per day.
On March 2, the leak was reduced to 3.5 metric tons per day according to Department of Interior estimates.
On March 5, the Department of Interior estimated that the flow, after increasing again, dropped from 35 metric tons per day back to 3.5 metric tons per day. It became very clear that regardless of the accuracy of the measurement, this was going to be a sizable oil pollution incident.
It took 11 days to cap the well.
A series of undersea faults opened up as a result of the blowout, continuing to release oil and gas until December 1969.
As much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil eventually gushed from both the well and the resulting faults.
Oil from Platform "A" was found as far north as Pismo Beach and as far south as Mexico.
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