50 years after Santa Barbara oil spill, the call remains: ‘Get oil out’

Photo: nbcnews.com

Special to ODP from David Helvarg, first published in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 2019

Fifty years after a California oil spill launched the modern environmental movement, we may finally be moving beyond the age of oil, and none too soon.

In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, warned that global carbon emissions would have to be cut by 45 percent by 2030 if there’s any hope of keeping planetary warming at a dangerous but less than catastrophic level.

Luckily, job-generating renewable energy now has become competitive with or cheaper than most forms of fossil fuel. Progressive Democrats are also calling for a Green New Deal that aims to transition the U.S. to a clean-energy economy, addressing both climate change and inequality.

For those who think a rapid energy conversion is not feasible, consider how in 1850 whale oil was the lubricant of the machine age and the light source for many of America’s finest homes, public buildings and streetlights. Thirty years later, rock oil (petroleum) had completely displaced it as a source of both energy and economic expansion.

Soon the demand for petroleum had taken to sea, with the world’s first offshore oil-drilling piers built in Summerland (Santa Barbara County) in 1896. It would take more than half a century to persuade Californians living just north of Summerland in the city of Santa Barbara that offshore drilling had become a safe technology.

It hadn’t.

On Jan. 28, 1969, just a year after the federal government leased offshore drilling tracts in the Santa Barbara Channel, and after it issued waivers allowing Union Oil (now part of Chevron) to reduce the length of its standard pipe casing from 500 to 15 feet, a crew drilling their fourth well hit a snag. Oil and gas exploded up the pipe string. When the blowout was capped, the oil began leaking below the shortened casing. Within days some 3 million gallons came ashore, covering 35 miles of sandy beaches with a viscous black coating of crude 6 inches thick. The oil slick gave the ocean waves a sludgy pulse and filled the air with an odor akin to gasoline.

When President Richard Nixon made an appearance after the spill in March, he was met by thousands of silent, angry residents, some carrying signs reading “Get oil out!”

The sight of Santa Barbara’s dying, oil-covered seabirds was followed five months later by TV images of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire. These events horrified Americans: The modern environmental movement was born.

After bipartisan actions in the 1970s to clean our air, water and protect wildlife and human health, environmental stewardship evolved from a social movement to a societal ethic, although one that, like “love thy neighbor,” was often ignored in practice.

The Trump administration’s ongoing push to open up more U.S. waters to drilling and acoustic oil surveys that can kill fish and whales has sparked opposition all along the eastern seaboard as well as in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Of course, in the wake of the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 and subsequent major spills, including Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989, Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and another Santa Barbara spill in 2015, the focus remained on energy versus pollution.

Only now we know drilling for hydrocarbons is also a product-liability issue. Used as directed, fossil fuels spill carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, heat our air, alter our weather, dry our forests and soils and acidify our seas.

The first steps in transitioning to more abundant renewable energy should include the early elimination of the dirtiest and most dangerous forms of fossil fuel in terms of worker safety, pollution and carbon emissions. That would be coal, tar sands, and offshore oil. In terms of protecting jobs for those energy workers, the easiest part for the Green New Deal would be to retrain roughnecks and roustabouts from offshore rigs for similar jobs such as offshore wind turbine technicians and line handlers.

Growing numbers of citizens are mobilizing around these creatively disruptive ideas, updating the Santa Barbara spirit of 50 years ago with demands that our elected officials get in line with market trends and entrepreneurial opportunities to Get Oil Out!

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His books include “The War Against the Greens” and “The Golden Shore — California’s Love Affair with the Sea.” 

Up Next

The Seaweed Solution to Methane Emissions from Cows

The Seaweed Solution to Methane Emissions from Cows

Tatiana Schlossberg reports for The Washington Post about the potential of seaweed to dramatically reduce methane emissions from cows.  It turns out that Asparagopsis taxiformis and Asparagopsis armata — two species of crimson submarine grass — can reduce those emissions by 98% when just a small amount is added to their food.  Now several companies are working […]

Continue Reading 206 words
Saltwater Intrusion Threatens the US and the World’s Coasts

Saltwater Intrusion Threatens the US and the World’s Coasts

ABC News reports that there is a creeping underground invasion of our coasts, and it is moving inland much faster than had been previously thought, according to new research funded by the National Science Foundation.  The stealth invader?  Saltwater, which is infiltrating our coastal communities and creating unseen risks well in advance of the surface floods that drown our homes and businesses. 

Why this Matters:  This problem will become more and more common as climate change continues, causing widespread displacement across the world.

Continue Reading 560 words
U.N. Report Calls for Protection of Seagrasses, “the Forgotten Ecosystem”

U.N. Report Calls for Protection of Seagrasses, “the Forgotten Ecosystem”

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer  According to a 2020 U.N. environmental report, seagrass “prairies” play a massive role in the health of the world’s oceans and if nothing is done to stop their decline, the world will face serious consequences.  Seagrasses support rich biodiversity that sustains a whopping 20% of the world’s fisheries, and […]

Continue Reading 493 words

Saltwater Intrusion Threatens the US and the World’s Coasts

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Natasha Laskin, ODP Contributing Writer

ABC News reports that there is a creeping underground invasion of our coasts, and it is moving inland much faster than had been previously thought, according to new research funded by the National Science Foundation.  The stealth invader?  Saltwater, which is infiltrating our coastal communities and creating unseen risks well in advance of the surface floods that drown our homes and businesses.  Climate change is elevating sea levels, increased the number and intensity of severe storms, and now we are beginning to see that saltwater has seeped into the land itself, which is soaking it up like a sponge, destroying coastal forests, crops, medicinal plants, and even groundwater supplies. With the Trump administration in climate denial, four Louisiana Native American tribes even took the unprecedented step of asking the United Nations to compel the U.S. government to take action on salt that is invading their lands.

Why this Matters:  This problem will become more and more common as climate change continues, causing widespread displacement across the world.  Seawater moving inland would poison a number of essential natural resources for those who live on the coasts — which comprises 40% of Americans.   Experts say in the short term we can’t stop the seas from rising, but we can manage the problem if we have buy-in from farmers, coastal communities, and local governments and if we use science-based solutions.

Latest Findings in the U.S.

The Howard Center of Investigative Journalism found a number of frightening effects from saltwater invasion across the country:

A Global Problem

People tend to settle near river deltas with large amounts of sediment, like the Mekong delta in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Ganges Brahmaptura delta in Bangladesh and India, and the Mississippi Delta in the United States. Because of this, if ocean levels rise, saltwater intrusion could become a major problem.  Unfortunately, however, because deltas are at—or even below—sea level, that means if ocean levels rise even slightly, they’re in trouble. This flooding could displace hundreds of millions in India and China, and millions in Australia and South America.

“It’s like the early stages of cancer,” Daniel Cozad, executive director of the Central Valley Salinity Coalition, told ABC. “You don’t feel it, you don’t see it and everything seems to be pretty normal. But if you’re not keeping track of it, it can get much worse.”

To Go Deeper: This video from Atlas Pro, a geographer and scientist who makes climate change youtube videos, shows the scope and consequences of coastal flooding.

Up Next

The Seaweed Solution to Methane Emissions from Cows

The Seaweed Solution to Methane Emissions from Cows

Tatiana Schlossberg reports for The Washington Post about the potential of seaweed to dramatically reduce methane emissions from cows.  It turns out that Asparagopsis taxiformis and Asparagopsis armata — two species of crimson submarine grass — can reduce those emissions by 98% when just a small amount is added to their food.  Now several companies are working […]

Continue Reading 206 words
U.N. Report Calls for Protection of Seagrasses, “the Forgotten Ecosystem”

U.N. Report Calls for Protection of Seagrasses, “the Forgotten Ecosystem”

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer  According to a 2020 U.N. environmental report, seagrass “prairies” play a massive role in the health of the world’s oceans and if nothing is done to stop their decline, the world will face serious consequences.  Seagrasses support rich biodiversity that sustains a whopping 20% of the world’s fisheries, and […]

Continue Reading 493 words
Trump Administration Approves Navy Training that Could “Take” Endangered Whales

Trump Administration Approves Navy Training that Could “Take” Endangered Whales

Last week, the Trump administration approved permits for future military training exercises over the next seven years in the Pacific Ocean that could harm or kill endangered whale populations. 

Why This Matters: The world is facing an extinction crisis. Biodiversity loss is at its highest rates ever across the globe and, without swift action to protect plant and animal life, there will be devastating effects.

Continue Reading 473 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.