Climate

The California Oil Spill Is Even Worse Than We Thought

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MICHAEL A. MARIANT

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in California on Wednesday, after oil spill estimates soared from 21,000 gallons to more than 105,000 gallons.

The crude oil spill, from a pipeline along the coast just north of Santa Barbara, has resulted in the closure of two beaches and local fisheries, and damaged the sensitive habitat of endangered birds, the governor’s office said. The spill has also drawn attention to the safety record of company that operates the pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline.

Responders, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Santa Barbara Office of Emergency Management, have been removing buckets of oily sludge from the beach, coastal areas, and water. Coast Guard Capt. Jennifer Williams told reporters that 7,700 gallons of “oily water mixture” has been removed.


El Capitan Beach, a state park, is closed until at least Thursday. Refugio State Beach is also closed, and a fishing ban is in place for a half-mile out to sea, for a mile up and down the coast.

Wildlife is not taking this well. The Audubon Society reported that brown pelicans in the area have been killed, and dead, oil-sodden lobsters, octopus, and other marine animals have washed up on shore.


Federal records show that the Plains All American Pipeline has had 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Times’ analysis found that “Plains’ rate of incidents per mile of pipe is more than three times the national average.”

Santa Barbara is, unfortunately, no stranger to oil disaster. A 1969 spill was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time, and to this day it is the third largest after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. That tragedy, however, led to some of the most important environmental legislation in U.S. history.

After visiting the site, then-President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which led the way to the July 1970 establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. He also oversaw the passage of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

California has also not allowed any offshore oil production in state waters since 1969, but the state’s control only extends three nautical miles off shore. A map submitted by Exxon to the Santa Barbara County Department of Planning and Development shows a number of oil rigs along the California coast.

A map from Exxon shows the large amount of oil development off California's coastline.

A map from Exxon shows the large amount of oil drilling off California’s coastline. Green boxes indicated developed areas.

CREDIT: via Santa Barbara County

The spill has drawn attention to the oil and gas pipelines that run up and down the California coast. Environmental advocates are taking this opportunity to voice concerns over oil and gas drilling and transportation.

About 150 Santa Barbara County residents gathered Thursday to urge a ban on “extreme oil extraction like fracking” and to put an end to oil extraction in California.

“This spill of more than 100,000 gallons of oil is a symptom of the bigger state of emergency — the expansion of oil and gas drilling — including extreme methods like fracking and cyclic steam injection,” Becca Claassen, Santa Barbara County organizer with Food & Water Watch, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Santa Barbara County has some of the strongest oil and gas regulations in the country; this spill is evidence that regulations aren’t the answer. In order to protect our coastline, our health and our future from toxic emergencies like this spill, Governor Brown must phasing out oil production in California, starting with a ban on fracking and other extreme extraction both on- and off-shore.”

The Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office is reportedly investigating the spill to determine whether criminal charges or civil liability can be brought.

The spill occurred just a week after the Obama Administration approved drilling in the Arctic. Environmental groups say there is a 75 percent chance of an oil spill greater than 1,000 gallons if leases like the ones in the Chukchi Sea are developed. The approval has been met with public outcry, including by hundreds of kayakers in Seattle seeking to disrupt the Shell rig’s passage to Alaska.