On Tuesday, a pipeline along the coast of California just north of Santa Barbara ruptured and spilled an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil. A significant portion of this oil ended up in the ocean, creating a four-mile-long slick along the coastline. Nearby Refugio State Beach was evacuated, and those on the scene said it smelled “something like burned rubber” and that the spill was “just devastating.”
Wildlife has also been impacted. Two whales swam precariously close to the spill on Tuesday and birds have been spotted covered in oil.
As the oil slick moves slowly southward toward the city of Santa Barbara and the true environmental costs become clearer, residents are eager to know the cause of the spill. On Wednesday, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney announced the county was reviewing “potentially relevant criminal and civil statutes” related to the spill.
The pipeline, built in 1991 to carry about 150,000 barrels of oil per day, was shut down within several hours of rupturing and a culvert was put up to prevent any more flow into the ocean. Late Tuesday, the owner of the pipeline, Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, released a statement saying the exact amount of oil released is unknown and that it is working to begin cleanup and remediation efforts.
“Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact. Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of all involved,” the company said in the statement.
“Deeply regrets” is probably an understatement for the company. Santa Barbara was the site of a massive 1969 oil spill that played a large role in galvanizing the modern environmental movement. Since then, the oil industry has been subject to intense scrutiny throughout the region. Any spill — any reminder — of that dramatic event almost half a century ago could set back the industry further and re-energize the community.
Even before the 1969 spill — which doused the region in up to 100,000 barrels, or three million gallons, over the course of a ten-day leak from an offshore platform — Santa Barbara was a focal point of the relationship between fossil fuel extraction and environmental preservation. Around the turn of the 20th century, the first offshore drilling in the country took place in Summerland, California, just a few miles down the coast from Santa Barbara.
Some of the most important environmental legislation in U.S. history came into being during the few years following the 1969 spill, which was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time and to this day is the third largest after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills.
Then-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.”
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. However, fossil fuel production is still a hot item issue in the state — even in Santa Barbara. Last November, a high-profile fracking ban in Santa Barbara County failed to pass after the oil and gas industry spent close to $6 million opposing it. The Santa Barbara region is rich in oil and natural gas reserves and there are some 1,167 active onshore wells — however few — if any — of them currently use conventional fracking technology.
There is also the question of water use. California is gripped in an epic drought that has been exacerbated by climate change. The state is imposing harsh water restrictions and a boisterous debate has emerged over who deserves what allotment of water. To many, oil and gas operations are low on the list.
“Why should we risk the safety of our water supply just to rush the supply of our local oil to the global market place?” Ken C. Macdonald, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Earth Science, said in a statement supporting the Santa Barbara fracking ban in November. “We should keep our oil supply in the ground until we, locally, really need it, and then extract it only if the technology has advanced to the point where there is no threat to our drinking water.”
The pipeline rupture this week is a harsh reminder of the risks posed by the industry.