Lessons Learned from Santa Barbara Spill

Oil Gallery

The oil spill of 1969 helped prompt the environmental movement. Courtesy of Bob Sollen, The Environmental Defense Center hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Bob Sollen, The Environmental Defense Center

As the presidential hopefuls debate the pros and cons of offshore drilling, natives of Santa Barbara, California remember the huge spill of 1969. Many say that disaster was the catalyst for the U.S. environmental movement.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Long time residents of Santa Barbara, California still remember a huge oil spill caused by offshore drilling. It tarred their beaches nearly 40 years ago. Many say that disaster inspired the country's environmental movement. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In January of 1969, Union Oil Company workers were drilling 3,000 feet below the ocean floor from an offshore drilling platform stationed six miles off of Santa Barbara's coast. When underwater pipes ruptured, the blow out spewed more than three million gallons of crude oil. The spill killed marine animals and blackened beaches.

(Soundbite of ocean)

BRACO: We're standing on the shoreline at Santa Barbara with Charlie Eckberg, an environmental activist, and Charlie, you were here in 1969 when this spill occurred.

Mr. CHARLIE ECKBERG (Environmental Activist): The ocean at my door turned black with oil and then you had the dead and the dying animals that were having to be picked up.

BARCO: They were right here on the beach?

Mr. ECKBERG: Right here on the beach. And the birds that were not yet dead, there was such an effort, an outpouring, in trying to try to save them but we couldn't.

BARCO: I saw pictures of them and they were just covered with…

Mr. ECKBERG: Covered with this black tar.

BARCO: Eckberg says that oil clogged up blowholes of dolphins, causing them to suffocate and wash up on shore with sea lions. The clean-up effort took months and cost millions of dollars, with workers trying in vain to sop up the mess with straw. Many say the disaster galvanized activists and students to create the modern environmental movement. It even inspired the first Earth Day the following year.

Ms. LINDA KROP (Attorney, Environmental Defense Center, Santa Barbara): The 1969 oil spill definitely had a huge impact, not just on environmental awareness and public response to oil and gas development, but it actually led to almost all of the environmental laws that we know today.

BARCO: Linda Krop is the lead attorney for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

Ms. KROP: By January, 1970, we had the National Environmental Policy Act passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon saying, wow, federal agencies look before you approve some kind of activity from a private applicant or even a federal agency. You have to consider what the impacts would be and is it possible to avoid them? Well, we take that all for granted now.

Mr. TUPPER HALL (Spokesman, Western States Petroleum Association): Californians should be confident that every caution is being made to ensure that there are no more 1969s.

BARCO: Tupper Hall is a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, whose members include major oil companies. He says the Santa Barbara oil spill was a wake-up call for the oil industry as well.

Mr. HALL: It was a certainly a terrible accident, an accident that profoundly changed the way the oil and natural gas industry viewed its responsibilities when operating in the marine environment. And it has led to an explosion of technology that makes that activity, in our view, far less prone to accidents.

BARCO: Hall says since 1969 there have been only eight 850 barrels of crude oil spilled from accidents by offshore drilling in California. Compare that, he says, with the 100,000 barrels created in the state every day. There's long been a federal moratorium on any new offshore oil drilling and along the U.S. coast, in part because of the 1969 disaster. From this pier, you can look out and see these oil drilling platforms.

Mr. JOHN ABRAHAM POWELL (President, Get Oil Out!): You can see platform A from here.

BARCO: So they're still drilling for oil here?

Mr. POWELL: Of course, yeah. I mean, there's still oil here, so they're still drilling.

BARCO: John Abraham Powell looks out at the rusty oil platforms still offshore. There are 23 of them in federal and state waters in California. Powell was born two weeks after the 1969 spill. He's now the president of an environmental organization called GOO, Get Oil Out.

Mr. POWELL: People who are actively fighting pollution and polluters, but also the movement to try to figure out what's next. We're trying to figure out how to get over oil.

DEL BARCO: Powell says he's horrified by talk of lifting the moratorium on further offshore drilling.

Mr. POWELL: I would like to see us stop moving backwards. Drilling is yesterday and alternative energy is tomorrow.

DEL BARCO: He says he hopes that conservation is the most lasting lesson of the 1969 oil spill. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, at the beach in Santa Barbara.

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