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.” 

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Why This Matters: The crisis is the latest in a series of ecological hurdles the state faces as it attempts to combat sea-level rise and biodiversity loss. About 25% of Florida’s species are at risk of losing 50% of their populations by 2060. Pollution, development, and rising temperatures compound the threats to biodiversity, and the Gulf of Mexico is no exception.

  • The state has now broken the manatee death record in just the first six months of 2021; 841 manatees have died this year, primarily due to algal blooms and loss of seagrass.
  • This record broke the previous peak of 830 deaths in 2013, also due to algal blooms.

This new bloom is a direct threat to the entire coastal Florida ecosystem. It won’t only disrupt wildlife but also fisheries and tourism that communities recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic rely on.

Blooming Beaches: St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said that cleanup crews had hauled 477 tons of dead marine life from coastlines in the past few weeks. This bloom has impacted the bay more than expected; experts say that red tide rarely makes its way into the bay and usually remains in the gulf. Experts believe the change is due to powerful southerly winds, which brought algae to an area where the Piney Point fertilizer plant site had dumped nitrogen-rich waste. 

It’s not just wildlife having a bad beach day. Residents are reporting the strong, penetrating smell of dead fish wafting into their homes. The algae produce fish-killing toxins that, when encountered by humans, can cause breathing trouble, itchy throats, and watery eyes. These symptoms could worsen cases of COVID-19 as the Delta variant sweeps through the nation.

Robert Weisberg, a physical oceanography professor at the University of South Florida, used a forecasting model to predict the course of this red tide and found no signs of imminent relief. “The bay is not very happy right now, to say the least,” he said.

Officials are at a loss as well. “It’s here. It’s bad. And there’s not much we can do other than make sure we’re all communicating well,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Director Eric Sutton told the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s no signs that necessarily it’s going to be coming to an end soon, but I’ve learned enough not to try to predict Red Tide either.”

Environmental groups and fishermen expressed concern about the long-term effects on the ecosystem and economy in a meeting on Tuesday. They worry that this bloom could rival a prolonged bloom in 2018 when Pinellas County pulled 1,800 tons of dead sea life from shores. Daniel Andrews, the co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, told the Tampa Bay Times that the damage to fisheries is “not something that goes away as soon as the Red Tide does.”

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