The Santa Barbara Oil Spill: History and Impact

Platform Alpha drilling rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.
Modern image of Platform A off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

Doc Searls /Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

On January 28, 1969, a blowout on an offshore oil drilling rig 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara led to the release of over over 4 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. The spill ultimately spread across 800 square miles, creating a 35-mile-long slick and coating some 100 miles of mainland California and Santa Barbara Channel Islands coastlines in a black, viscous goo. It killed thousands of sea birds and countless more marine mammals, fish, and other ocean life, and it helped initiate a powerful new chapter in the environmental movement. 

The Santa Barbara oil spill was an important impetus for the first Earth Day and a series of bedrock environmental laws that followed in the early 1970s. None of these subsequent regulatory actions, however, prevented even larger spills. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and spewed oil for three months—134 million gallons in all—before the damaged well was capped. But the Santa Barbara spill, the third largest in U.S. history and the worst at the time, had arguably the most enduring policy impact.

The Oil Spill

Drilling had occurred in shallow state waters off the coasts of Santa Barbara and nearby Ventura since the late 19th century. But as technological advancements made possible increasingly deeper extraction, local residents sought greater control over drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Starting in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration looked to fast-track approvals for offshore drilling leases as a source of funding for the Vietnam War and its domestic policy agenda, despite local resistance. As Robert Easton recounted in his 1972 book Black Tide, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall assured coastal residents that they had nothing to fear, that drilling leases would only be granted under conditions that ensured environmental protection. The Interior Department rushed the leases through with minimal public input. Eight days before the infamous spill, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president.

On the morning of January 28, 1969, workers on an offshore rig known as Platform A, owned and operated by Union Oil, had just drilled a new well into an oil and gas reservoir nearly 3,500 feet (two-thirds of a mile) beneath the seafloor. As they removed the pipe casing, a pressure difference occurred that led to a blowout. Oil and natural gas under extreme pressure raced toward the surface. It later emerged that the federal government had issued Union Oil a waiver to sidestep safety measures that might have prevented the spill.

Workers scrambled to cap off the well in order to stop oil and gas from spewing out, but the temporary fix only intensified pressure. Natural fault lines under the seafloor began to form cracks under that pressure, causing an uncontrolled release of gas and oil at several different points around the well. Oil and gas bubbled to the surface as if the ocean were boiling, and a dark slick gradually spread toward the shore.

It was uncharted territory. At the time, there were no federal regulations to guide the response to a spill of this magnitude, and Union Oil had neither a contingency plan nor adequate equipment and technical know-how necessary to stop oil and gas from escaping through the cracks in the seafloor.

Reaction and Cleanup

Overnight, shifting winds pushed the oil toward the coast; a heavy, pungent petroleum odor announced its impending arrival. As the oil began showing up on shore in the following days, an increasingly bleak picture of the damage emerged. Oil up to 6-inches thick covered area beaches as well as the northern Santa Barbara Channel Islands, with the worst concentrations around the cities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and Ventura. The thick layer of oil smothered the water, muffling the sounds of waves breaking on local beaches.

Although there had been local resistance to offshore drilling even before the Johnson administration moved to authorize federal leases, no one had imagined a scenario quite like this. Locals were in shock as they walked the oil-coated beaches and encountered dead and dying birds, marine mammals, fish, and other marine life. Surfers, fishers, and other community members took to the water to try to rescue oiled wildlife and help with the cleanup. 

Neither the oil industry nor the federal government knew how to clean up an oil spill at sea, and the size of this spill was unprecedented. Winter storms and rough surf broke apart the floating booms that Union Oil tried to set up around the spill to contain it. The company used helicopters to spray chemical dispersants to break up the oil, but this, too, proved largely ineffective. As the oil reached the beaches, Union Oil resorted to using massive amounts of straw to absorb the sticky sludge on the shoreline. It was a slow, rudimentary, trial-and-error response. The slick remained for months, and the damage to marine and coastal ecosystems continued for years. 

Environmental Impact

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oil from Platform A was identified some 80 miles to the north at Pismo Beach and more than 230 miles south in Mexico. Although the well was capped after 11 days, oil and gas continued to seep from the seafloor for months as Union Oil struggled to adequately seal the cracks.

The spill occurred in a region of extreme biodiversity. Between Platform A and the mainland were rich kelp forests that support a multitude of marine life, including fish, sharks, rays, urchins, lobsters, abalone, crabs, sponges, anemones, and coral—and much smaller organisms at the base of the marine food web. Many of the impacts to offshore ecosystems remain unknown. But the thousands of dead and dying wildlife that appeared onshore provided a striking indication of the damage and shocked people into action.

Just as no one knew how to effectively clean up the spill, no one knew how to help the thousands of oil-coated birds and marine mammals washing up on beaches. The Santa Barbara Zoo, just across the street from the city’s palm-studded downtown beach, became one makeshift staging area for attempts to save suffering wildlife. Seabirds, especially gulls and grebes, were most affected, with nearly 3,700 birds confirmed dead; some scientists estimate more than double that number likely succumbed.

Birds are particularly vulnerable in oil spills; the oil coats birds’ feathers, making it impossible for them to fly. It also interferes with their waterproofing and insulation, which can cause hypothermia. As the birds preen to remove the toxic oil and tar, they ingest it.

Marine mammals also suffered. Dead and dying dolphins, seals, sea lions, and otters washed up on local beaches. Inhalation of fumes can cause severe respiratory damage, whereas ingesting oil through grooming or consumption of oiled prey may lead to organ damage and potentially organ failure. And for creatures like sea otters that depend on fur for insulation from chilly ocean waters, oil coatings can result in hypothermia and death. Recent studies confirm the carcinogenic impacts of petroleum products for marine mammals and their association with lung lesions in dolphins and other species.

The photos and television images of blackened coastal waters and beaches, along with photos of dead and dying wildlife in one of California’s most picturesque tourist destinations, often called the “American Riviera,” prompted international shock and outrage. The spill brought together Santa Barbarans from across the political spectrum to advocate for an end to offshore drilling. It was a formative early chapter in the long struggle to move away from fossil fuel dependency. 

Long-Term Impact

President Richard Nixon visiting Ledbetter Park in Santa Barbara, California following the oil spill in March 1969.

Nixon White House Photographs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Santa Barbara oil spill didn’t spark the modern environmental movement on its own; many Americans had been concerned about land and wildlife conservation, air and water pollution, and nuclear fallout for decades. Rachel Carsons’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, is frequently credited with shifting environmentalism from a largely conservation-oriented movement to one focused on the ecological and human health effects of industrial and agricultural chemicals. 

The 1969 spill brought these concerns into sharp relief and illustrated to the nation and the world the environmental and economic risks associated with oil and gas extraction. It became a galvanizing event, uniting Americans of different political persuasions to advocate for stronger environmental protections. 

Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), a champion of environmental causes, was so disturbed by the spill that he devised a national environmental teach-in, which evolved into the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970 and attracted participation from 20 million people around the country. Earth Day brought together Americans of diverse political persuasions who were concerned about unchecked pollution. It created political momentum that helped bring about the passage of major environmental legislation. 

Even Richard Nixon, far from a champion of green issues, recognized a political opportunity following the spill. Environmental protection enjoyed broad popularity with the American public at a time when the Vietnam War had deeply divided the country. Just prior to the first anniversary of the spill, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, considered the foundation of environmental policymaking in the U.S. NEPA requires federal agencies to perform environmental impact assessments of proposed projects and mandates public input. 

By the end of 1970, Nixon had established the Environmental Protection Agency. A series of federal statutes followed that are considered among the country’s most important environmental laws. These included a major expansion of the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Ocean Dumping Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and many more. Federal policies enacted after the spill also increased the penalties and cleanup costs for which oil platform operators are liable.

Federal actions were mirrored at the state level. California placed a moratorium on new offshore drilling in its waters. In 1970, the state enacted the California Environmental Quality Act, CEQA, which, like NEPA, requires public disclosure and an environmental impact assessment for major projects, and mandates that those impacts be mitigated as much as possible. It also helps ensure that polluters pay for cleanup. The California Coastal Commission, which holds significant power to regulate human use of land and water in the state’s coastal zones, was founded in 1972.

In 1974, Union Oil, along with Mobil, Texaco, and Gulf, settled a lawsuit over the spill with the city and county of Santa Barbara, the city of Carpinteria, and the state of California for $9 million—a significant sum for the time. 

Today, Santa Barbara and similarly vulnerable coastal communities in California are better prepared to respond to a major oil spill. State contingency plans provide for better coordination between state agencies and with the federal government. A statewide effort to assist wildlife harmed by the spill, known as the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, applies lessons learned from past spills and offers affected wildlife a better chance of survival.

Battles over offshore oil and gas drilling have not faded in the half century since the Santa Barbara spill, however. Federal leases that predate the state moratorium mean drillers still operate off the coast. Hundreds of abandoned offshore wells pose an additional concern. And a 2015 oil spill that released 100,000 gallons of crude oil at Refugio State Beach along the scenic Gaviota Coast west of Santa Barbara was a potent reminder of the ever-present risks of oil development in the state.

In 2018, the Trump administration attempted to open nearly all offshore waters in the U.S. to drilling, despite broad resistance. (A court ruling paused the plan the following year and Trump’s 2020 election loss effectively canned it.) Now, legislation is being proposed to prevent future presidents from granting offshore drilling. Whether offshore drilling is ultimately banned or not, California will continue to face risks from its long legacy of oil development at sea.

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