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The last oil spill in Santa Barbara helped birth environmentalism. What will this one do?

Oil soaked kelp and oil sheen as cleanup effort continues on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 20, 2015.
Oil soaked kelp and oil sheen as cleanup effort continues on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 20, 2015.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency after an underground oil pipeline ruptured along the south coast of Santa Barbara, California. The pipeline may have leaked up to 105,000 gallons of oil, potentially menacing nearby beaches and wildlife.

Clean-up crews are now laying down booms in the ocean to keep the oil from spreading. Officials have found two slicks along the coast, plus two pelicans covered in crude. The area is also home to two endangered bird species — the snowy plover and the least tern.

What makes a leak in this region so attention-getting is that Santa Barbara County was also the site of a much, much bigger oil spill back in 1969. That was America's first major oil spill, a widely publicized disaster that helped launched the modern-day environmental movement:

santa Barbara spill map2

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

That earlier spill began on January 28, 1969, after a blowout on Union Oil's Platform A — located offshore in the Santa Barbara channel. It took 10 days to plug the leak with cement, and in the interim, up to 4.2 million gallons of crude oil had spilled out, far more than the worst-case estimates from the current spill.

How the 1969 oil spill galvanized the green movement

Platform A. It was here that, on January 25, 1969, a huge blowout in the ocean floor occurred, and a spill covered Santa Barbara's harbor. (Doc Searls/Flickr)

Union Oil's Platform A. It was here that, on January 25, 1969, a blowout in the ocean floor occurred, leading to a spill that covered Santa Barbara's harbor. (Doc Searls/Flickr)

Media outlets across the country rushed to cover the 1969 spill, and the pictures were a shock to Americans watching at home, who had never seen anything like it. The oil killed nearly 3,500 birds, as well as dolphins, elephant seals, sea lions, and it took volunteers some 45 days to clean the beaches. Nearby fishing and tourism took a big hit.

Meanwhile, the head of Union Oil, Fred Hartley, was famously quoted in newspapers as saying, "I'm always amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds." (What he actually said was a bit different: "I am always tremendously impressed at the publicity that death of birds receives versus the loss of people in our country in this day and age." But the quoted version sparked outrage.)

That 1969 Santa Barbara spill arguably played a major role in the upwelling of environmentalism across the nation. In California, people skewered their gas-station credits and lit them on fire in protest after the Santa Barbara spill, according to Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker. Then, in June 1969, Ohio's famously polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire yet again. This was also the same decade that Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which had documented the negative effects of DDT on birds. Environmental issues were making headlines again and again.

In response, Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act that year, requiring federal agencies to take environmental concerns into account in their projects. Then, in April 1970, the first Earth Day occurred, and millions of people around the country held rallies and teach-ins. In the months that followed, President Nixon signed an executive order creating the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress enacted the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The 1969 spill also had a big impact on the oil industry. In the three years after the disaster, California placed a moratorium on all new offshore drilling in its waters. The federal government enacted regulations to require oil platform operators to pay for cleanup costs — as well as new penalties for accidents. Congress passed a law that effectively banned all new offshore drilling in California, though still leaving 23 oil and gas leases in state waters.

Could today's (smaller) spill also have a political impact?

Oil covered rocks on the beach as Crews bag oiled sand and kelp on the beach as a clean-up operation began at Refugio State Beach Wednesday morning, May 20, 2015, after a ruptured pipeline near Santa Barbara leaked an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Oil covered rocks on the beach as Crews bag oiled sand and kelp on the beach as a clean-up operation began at Refugio State Beach Wednesday morning, May 20, 2015, after a ruptured pipeline near Santa Barbara leaked an estimated 21,000 gallons of crude oil. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

It seems unlikely the current Santa Barbara spill will be quite as galvanizing as that earlier one. After all, it's a lot smaller — and less novel.

At the time, the 1969 spill was the largest America has ever seen. It has since been surpassed in size by the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each of these spills were major news, and they pushed policymakers to pursue new regulations on drilling and oil infrastructure (although neither had quite the political impact of the 1969 spill).

Even so, the current Santa Barbara spill does present an opportunity to reassess our oil infrastructure. Case in point: This week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Plains Pipeline, the company that owned the pipeline that ruptured, had a poor safety record — accumulating 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006.

That news comes on the heels of a big recent Politico investigation into how the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration lacks the manpower to inspect the nation's 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipeline. That can often have fatal consequences: "Last year, more than 700 pipeline failures killed 19 people, injured 97 and caused more than $300 million in damage," wrote Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia.

So far, that pipeline-regulation issue has been largely obscure. But history suggests that oil spills have a way of focusing the nation's attention.