Platform A oil spill.

Chris Graff/Department of Fish and Game

Platform A oil spill.

Thousand-Gallon Spill in Santa Barbara Waters

Oil Critics, Advocates Put Mishap in National Energy Context

Ever since a blowout at Platform A caused more than 1 million gallons of oil to leak into the Santa Barbara Channel in January 1969, environmentalists have attempted to stop offshore drilling. On the eve of the debacle’s 40th anniversary, however, the very same platform-situated approximately six miles offshore from Carpinteria and now under the ownership of Dos Cuadras Offshore Resources, LLC (DCOR)-was the source of Sunday’s spill, estimated to be over 1,400 gallons. Luckily, the wind cooperated, and the slick-which at one point stretched three miles long and 200 feet wide-did not make landfall. The California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Recovery (OSPR) reported minimal damage resulting from the spill, having spotted only two oiled birds as of Tuesday evening, but the incident has caused concern among many about the aging drilling apparatus operating in the channel. “Unfortunately, we could see a lot more of this in Santa Barbara,” said Hannah Eckberg, vice president of Get Oil Out (GOO), the environmental organization formed in response to the 1969 spill.

The leak began the morning of December 7, caused by a finger-sized hole about four feet above the surface of the water in a pump line reservoir, explained John Romero, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). “Not all platforms have this system-it’s an older platform,” he said, adding that the DCOR crew aboard the platform spotted the sheen from the leak fairly quickly, activated a cleanup response, and plugged the leak.

Platform A oil spill cleanup.
Click to enlarge photo

Chris Graff/CDFG

Platform A oil spill cleanup.

DCOR, along with other offshore oil developers in the region, is required to pay collaboratively into Clean Seas-a spill response company on call 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. Clean Seas maintains a variety of response vessels positioned at key areas around the channel. During a spill, the U.S. Coast Guard and OSPR assume command of the incident, but the responsible party-in this case, DCOR-is required to initiate a response from Clean Seas. “Overall, DCOR has been a responsible operator,” said Romero, noting that MMS hasn’t had any major problems with any of the other eight platforms the company operates.

The cleanup flotilla, which DCOR was required to pay for-included four Clean Seas response vessels, six boats from private contractors, a 47-foot Coast Guard cutter, two aerial surveillance helicopters, and 70 people. Once the aerial data was collected, the maps and imagery were sent electronically to the boats to provide real time parameters from which the crews could work.

Having scooped up about 1,400 gallons of oil from the water, the cleanup effort is mostly completed, but Romero said that the investigation process will begin where cleanup left off. MMS, which he said regularly inspects the mechanical and management components of oil production facilities, also verifies production numbers to ensure that companies are paying the correct amount of revenue to state and local governments. MMS will conduct an investigation of the spill to determine what can be improved, and if negligence was to blame. Actions that could be levied against DCOR include an incidence of noncompliance-which would require correction of problems found and fines if they are not fixed within a specified time-or criminal penalties against the company’s directorate if investigators determine that negligence was a cause.

Platform A oil spill cleanup.
Click to enlarge photo

Chris Graff/CDFG

Platform A oil spill cleanup.

During a lousy economy with fluctuating fuel prices, the issue of offshore drilling remains controversial. Some favor drilling because they believe it will relieve American dependence upon foreign oil, but others see it as an industry that is not worth the risks to health and the environment. “I think the important thing for people to understand is that domestic energy supply is every bit as important to our national security as a well-funded, well-trained military,” said Carpinteria City Councilmember Joe Armendariz. “I don’t think you allow an accident like this to become a justification for doing anything reckless or draconian.”

However, the opposition to that view sees continued drilling as an excuse to avoid more thorough exploration of renewable energy options. “We can’t be fooled by the rising and falling of oil prices,” said Eckberg. “No matter what boasts [oil companies] make about new technology, oil development is still not safe.” In response to the spill, Congressmember Lois Capps stated her aim to cease offshore drilling in coastal waters. “It was another all-too-common occurrence that seems an almost inevitable part of drilling for oil,” she said in a prepared statement.

CORRECTION: A spill amount of 1,134 gallons was published in this week's print edition, but OSPR officials stated that DCOR's esimate was short of the 1,400 gallons cleanup crews actually collected.

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