It has been 50 years since a drilling platform off the coast of Santa Barbara spewed about 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, left an oil slick along 35 miles of California’s beautiful coast and killed thousands of animals.
The fallout from this disaster, which placed the oil industry in environmentalists’ crosshairs, still is being felt throughout the nation, especially in Kern County’s oil patch. And now, some in California, including politicians, are demanding that oil production be banned in the state.
A battle is growing over the very future of the industry, the thousands of jobs it provides and the positive contributions it makes to the nation’s and California’s economy.
The call to ban oil production in California is ridiculous. Instead, what is needed is a balanced strategy that supports California’s oil industry, but also protects the state’s air, water, land and coastline.
Until the Exxon Valdez tanker dumped 11 million of gallons of crude oil off the Alaska coast in 1989, the Santa Barbara disaster was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It also was a seminal event that ignited the nation’s collective environmental protection fervor.
It was on Jan. 28, 1969, when the blowout occurred at the Union Oil Co. platform. The company had received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet shorter than the federal minimum standard at the time.
The rig explosion reportedly was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places and gushed oil into the ocean for days. For more than a month, the world was bombarded with photos of sick, dying and dead birds, dolphins, elephant seals, sea lions and other creatures soaked in oil.
It took more than 45 days for an army of people – many of them volunteers -- to clean beaches stretching from Goleta to Ventura and including the north shores of the Channel Islands.
As newly sworn-in Republican President and California-native Richard Nixon watched, he noted that the disaster “has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.” It also unleashed a political storm that continues today.
The California State Lands Commission placed a moratorium on all new offshore drilling in state waters. A similar moratorium was placed on drilling in federal waters. Existing platform operators were saddled with expanded spill liability.
A few months later, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which led to the creation of the EPA, and state lawmakers enacted the California Environment Quality Act – both requiring reports be prepared to assess the environmental impacts of projects.
Laws addressing the pollution of air and water, and the protection of endangered species and sensitive lands soon followed. California voters passed a ballot measure creating the California Coastal Commission.
A year after the Santa Barbara oil spill, the nation observed its first Earth Day. This year’s annual event will be held on April 22.
With the focus now shifting to the climate change debate and the role played by fossil fuels, some environmental groups and their political allies are calling for a ban on all oil production in California – both offshore and inland, including in Kern County.
While former Gov. Jerry Brown pushed to decrease California’s reliance on fossil fuels, he resisted attempts to ban oil production in the state. It is uncertain how Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newson, will respond.
The debate also is wrapped in increasing tensions between California and the Trump administration, which is proposing to expand offshore oil drilling in federal waters along the West Coast and relax industry regulations.
The entire state – especially Kern County – has a stake in the future of California’s oil industry.
The air we all breathe, the water that we drink and the state’s overall quality of life require effective and scientifically supported regulation of California’s oil industry. But what also must be recognized is the contribution the industry makes to California’s economy, which is fueled by its energy and jobs.