"How A Massive Oil Spill In 1969 Changed Everything"
Music echoed around the world in 1969 during Woodstock. The world watched with captivated eyes as Neil Armstrong touched down on the moon. And in southern California — on the same stretch of coastline where offshore oil drilling first took place at the turn of the 20th century — an oil spill forever changed the way we view the environment.
The Santa Barbara oil spill that began on the morning of January 28, 1969 had many lasting impacts. In the immediate aftermath, thousands of seabirds died, seals and dolphins were poisoned, and kelp forests were devastated as oil up to six inches thick coated 35 miles of coastline along the idyllic, Mediterranean shores of Santa Barbara County. The oil muted the sound of the waves on the beach and the smell of petroleum was pervasive. The only larger oil spills to have happened in the U.S. since are the 1989 Exxon Valdez crash and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The three million gallon blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara captivated the nation’s attention for weeks and changed the way both the public and the government view fossil fuels — a view that is still evolving today as both onshore and offshore development boom. Technological advances in oil and gas drilling since 1969 have paved the way for the current renaissance, led by the tapping of natural gas deposits, but safety regulations and reliable oversight lag behind just as they did 45 years ago.
CREDIT: Ari Phillips
“Once the oil came onshore it was really quiet, just a slick as far as you could see,” said Bud Bottoms, one of the founders of the small but influential group Get Oil Out (GOO), which coalesced in the days following the 1969 spill. “Then the birds started coming in, and when the tide went out it left thousands of them. We tried to treat them but we didn’t know what we were doing. This was the first time this had ever happened. And they all died.”
Now in his eighties, Bottoms was talking from his home and sculpture studio in the hills of Santa Barbara. He’d laid out his latest project, a pictorial depiction of the spill, on a large table in a front room of the house, overlooking a well-kept garden. Before becoming a full-time sculptor Bottoms was an art director for General Electric, a Santa Barbara think tank. His dolphin statue is the marquee of the Santa Barbara pier.
“My life in Santa Barbara was pristine,” said Bottoms, who has close-cropped white hair and a beard of equal length. “I came here after World War II, the harbor was beautiful, the beaches were fantastic, and the ocean was transparent. Then one day an invasion came — and in came the derricks.”
The first offshore drilling in the country took place in Summerland, California, just a few miles down the coast from Santa Barbara. These rigs were attached to piers extending right out of the bluffs into the ocean. By the middle of the century oil companies had built piers up and down the California coastline. Then, to get out into the deeper water, they constructed the first offshore platforms.
Bottoms said that shortly after the oil started gushing from cracks in the seafloor surrounding Platform A, Union Oil, the company responsible for the spill, became alarmed.
“The only thing they could think to do to clean up the mess was to throw some straw in it to soak up the oil,” said Bottoms. “So here’s a multi-billion dollar operation and all they could find to clean it up was straw and kitty litter. Then they picked it up and dumped it in a canyon, and after it rained like hell for the next few days it just came back down to the ocean and returned into the sea.”
CREDIT: Ari Phillips
The scope of attention focused on the spill grew along with the mess of oil in the days following the spill. Even President Richard Nixon visited the site, saying “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people … The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”
In the years that followed, the lasting impression of the spill on the public, government officials, and the private sector led to coordinated action unheard of in today’s starkly partisan Congress. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which led the way to the July 1970 establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Long Lasting Impressions
“Platform A and the others that were put up in 1966 and 1967 were brand new, a new kind of technology,” said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel at the Environmental Defense Center, from her office in the organization’s small complex in downtown Santa Barbara. “And kind of like with the new technology we’re dealing with today, industry was way ahead of the regulatory agencies. We’ve seen it recently with Deepwater Horizon, fracking, and acidizing — industry is proceeding with these technologies before regulations are in place.”
Krop said that the coast along Santa Barbara is probably one of the most ecologically rich areas of the U.S. mainland because the southern warm waters meet cooler northern pacific water. There’s also a very deep continental shelf with lots of nutrients.
If it weren’t for the environmental efforts galvanized by the spill, Krop said there would also be a lot more oil drilling.
“The state has not allowed any new oil development in state water since the 1969 spill,” she said. “There used to be leases all along here, so we would see much more drilling and it would be a much more industrialized community if it weren’t for the protections put in place.”
Instead of the proliferation of derricks and refineries, Santa Barbara saw the blossoming of a powerful and engaged environmental community based around groups like Get Oil Out! and the Environmental Defense Center, both founded in the wake of the spill. The Santa Barbara declaration of environmental rights, written by UC-Santa Barbara professor Dr. Roderick Nash shortly after the spill, was read in to the Congressional record and helped frame the conversation that lead to the National Environmental Policy Act.
“There’s nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution about the environment,” said Krop. “In essence, the point was that humans can have increasing impacts on the environment, and it’s important to think about consequences of actions before they happen. We take this much for granted now, but we didn’t have that then.”
CREDIT: Ari Phillips
Looking out over the early evening ocean, the line of a half dozen or so oil platforms appears serene, their bright lights muted by the distance. Occupying space between the Pacific shore and the paralleling Channel Islands, these beacons in the night are no longer shining monuments to human progress but aging relics that seem to have outlasted their usefulness. Instead, advances in horizontal drilling allowing them to tap resources further from the platform, and secondary recovery techniques like acidization and fracking, coupled with the high price of oil, means they will be around for the foreseeable future.
As with most industry accidents, hindsight shows the 1969 spill would have been preventable. The oil company had been given permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to use a shorter casing on the pipe than both federal and California standards prescribed — clearly an effort to cut corners. Investigators later determined that more steel pipe sheeting inside the drilling hole could have prevented the rupture. Instead, even though the wellhead itself was capped, a blowout occurred due to fragmentation of the casing.
Today, Platform A is still pumping oil from the mostly depleted reserves of the Dos Cuadras Field. Having pumped over 260 million barrels of oil, in 2010 it was estimated that over 11 million barrels of recoverable oil remained with current technology.
Where Are We Now?
“There’s always been natural oil seeps around here,” said County of Santa Barbara Deputy Energy Director Kevin Drude. “The Chumash Indians used oil from the seeps as a sealant for their canoes.”
Drude is overseeing a newly reformed Energy division that is responsible for both onshore and offshore activities within the county. His office is covered in maps of the region and lined with aging oil samples sent by major oil companies over the years. Drude said the consortium of groups that formed after the 1969 spill continue to monitor and react to every proposed oil and gas project, and that they “keep us honest, which is a good thing.”
If there’s anything more layered than the history of oil and gas exploration in the region, it’s the geology itself. Drude said a recent study revising down the oil that can be extracted from California’s Monterey Shale by 96 percent means nothing for Santa Barbara County.
“Locally that’s not going to change anything. We have investment, drilling methods, licenses — it’s just going to keep going,” said Drude. “I think what they learned is that you can’t do a couple cross sections and apply it to the whole region because the geologies are so different due to seismic differences.”
The geology of the state is a full of overlapping layers from millennia of earthquakes. Public opinion on fracking is almost as geographically varied.
CREDIT: Ari Phillips
“Santa Cruz is way on the left and has a moratorium on fracking,” said Drude. “Bakersfield is fracking everything. There’s even fracking in Ventura. And there would be fracking here if it made sense geographically.”
The Energy division has never had an operator come in and ask for a fracking permit because it doesn’t help get oil out of the ground. Drude said of the 239 wells to go into operation in the last year, more than half are using a process called cyclic steam injection that is good for getting very viscous oil out of shallow reservoirs. It doesn’t require any hydro-fracking of the Earth, but rather uses steam to help the oil flow more readily.
There is a strong local resistance movement to cyclic steam injection because of its water use, potential groundwater contamination, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Drude said the wells are using reclaimed water, or water that comes up with the oil that would otherwise not have entered into the hydrological cycle for normal use.
“The big issue with cyclic steam injection is the greenhouse gases because you burn a lot of natural gas to create the steam,” said Drude. “Operators can invest in technology on site to mitigate locally, and if they can’t reach the level of emissions required they can purchase credits on the market through a number of purveyors.”
California has a nascent cap-and-trade program, for which only one project in Santa Barbara has triggered the threshold of 25,000 metric tons per year of emissions. Drude said Santa Barbara County actually has a much lower threshold of 10,000 metric tons that projects have to meet.
Taking Action, By Ballot Or Boat
The Santa Barbara Water Guardians are the contemporary manifestation of Get Oil Out. Founded to prevent the use of fracking, acidization, or stem injection in the county, they have managed to gather enough signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot that would ban High-Intensity Petroleum Operations, including “hydraulic fracturing, acid well stimulation treatments, cyclic steam injection and other types of oil and gas development that use advanced well stimulation technologies.”
Drude is skeptical of the scope of the initiative.
“What are advanced well stimulation technologies?” he said. “Any operation where the flow of hydrocarbons into the well is aided or induced with any injected substance, including water, steam, air, carbon dioxide … during the course of any well’s life, something goes down that well to clean it out. According to that definition, you can’t do well maintenance.”
Both Drude and Krop said that while regulatory action at the federal level for fracking and acidization is quite a ways down the road, bills are currently being considered at the state level. A bill pushing for a moratorium on fracking until the new regulations came out died in the session earlier this spring, but there are interim rules in the meantime.
“I think this is a pivotal moment for onshore production,” said Krop. “People are becoming aware and even though they tend to couch everything in terms of fracking — like this anti-fracking initiative — all these new technologies are dangerous, polluting, and not well regulated. People here will continue to be resistant to oil development just as they have been for the last 40 years.”
CREDIT: Ari Phillips
One night in 1969 — after a few beers — Bottoms and a friend decided they were going to try to hand deliver the 200,000 odd signatures they’d gotten to ban offshore drilling to President Nixon during one of his trips home to San Clemente, California. After driving south through the night, they arrived in San Clemente around daybreak.
“We saw a guy fishing with his daughter and we asked if he could bring us down to Nixon’s house,” recalled Bottoms. “And the daughter said ‘daddy, please do this, I know what’s going on in Santa Barbara.’”
The fisherman agreed to take them down to the coast along Nixon’s house.
“We were World War II guys so we had this plan like we’re going invade,” said Bottoms. “We thought, we’ll charge the beach and everything, and all of a sudden the coast guard comes and cuts us off. We told him we were going to hand deliver these petitions to the president and he said, sorry, you can’t do that guys. We made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.”
Bottoms has continued to fight for action of the last four decades, calling the initial spill a “global warning.” He said that the actual issue of global warming seeped into the conversation over the last 20 or 30 years.
“I’m still doing all these things because I’m a father and a grandfather of 10,” he said. “I never thought about this kind of thing in the 1920s and 30s.”
Now almost a century later, Bottoms said fossil fuel development has led to some very destructive trends. “This could be the end of things for a lot of things,” he said. “You know frogs? Where the hell are all the frogs? They’re a good indication of what’s happening. A lot of things are disappearing.”