Get Oil Out (GOO) Collection. SBHC Mss 10. Department of Special Research Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara
Union Oil’s Platform A
Santa Barbara’s 1969 Oil Spill Reverberates Today
Fifty Years after the Platform A Blowout, Activists Are Still in the Fight
Thursday, January 24, 2019
Rick Rust is one of those classic oil guys — homegrown, plainspoken, and down-to-earth; you can’t help but like him. Nowadays, however, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, too.
Rust is the public face of Aera Energy, a Kern County oil company hoping to open a massive 296-well project — 141 wells for oil and gas production and another 155 for steam and water injection, observation, and water production — on 2,000 acres in Santa Maria’s oil-rich Cat Canyon.
It’s Rust’s bad luck that public comment began on Aera’s project just as Santa Barbara County is about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s catastrophic oil spill of 1969 — the blowout at Union Oil’s offshore Platform A.
To the extent Rust is knocked off course by this coincidence, he doesn’t let on. “People need to understand this is not 1969,” he insisted in a recent interview. “The technology has evolved greatly. … We can produce oil and protect the environment.” The environmental activists thronging the Government Center in Santa Maria last Thursday evening were not buying it.
More than 80 people signed up to comment at this first of several public meetings. Though Rust had packed the house with supporters who spoke about Aera’s safety record and the many jobs it would bring to the county, more speakers spoke against the project. They scorched the draft environmental impact (EIR) report as “totally inadequate.” In a time of dire climate change, they charged, the whole idea of the project was beyond reckless. As an added irony, some people noted that the last date for public comments will fall on January 28, the actual anniversary of the 1969 oil spill.
The ghost of that disaster — which left 30 miles of Santa Barbara coastline choked, silenced, and blackened with more than three million gallons of oil — haunted last week’s proceedings. And not just rhetorically. For some Santa Barbarans, it might be difficult to understand the enormity of that historic event, which, even 50 years later, still ranks as the third worst oil spill in U.S. history. But it changed the fundamental rules of engagement for all environmental battles since fought across the United States. And in Santa Barbara, the drama of that nightmare brought together an astonishing cross section of the community in sustained outrage. The results of that outrage — implacable, inventive, and creative — yielded lasting results.
Ed Martin Collection / S.B. historical Museum
Not that long ago, Stearns Wharf was home base to an industrial-scale oil-service operation; after the spill, Santa Barbara residents by the hundreds if not thousands — estimates vary wildly — blockaded the wharf with their bodies, not letting oil trucks in or out. Tensions ran exceptionally high, but cool heads prevailed, and no one got hurt. Ultimately, oil operations vacated the premises.
Back in the Black Day
Let’s start with the basics. Last week’s public comment meeting would never have taken place were it not for changes in national and state law requiring public participation — a direct result of Santa Barbara’s oil spill. In 1969, there was no National Environmental Policy Act — and no California Environmental Quality Act — which allowed the public to review and comment on almost all major developments.
It’s worth remembering that Santa Barbara’s civically engaged citizens — Republicans and Democrats — had vigorously opposed offshore oil development back in the 1960s when the federal government decided to lease offshore tracts to raise revenues needed to wage the Vietnam War. Despite continual attempts, local citizens were repeatedly denied the opportunity to comment on such proposals in public hearings. Just as repeatedly, federal officials insisted there was no basis for Santa Barbara’s collective apprehension about industrial catastrophes at sea.
These same federal officials, it turned out, had issued waivers allowing Union Oil to cut critical corners on safety requirements that had been specifically designed to prevent blowouts. Just 14 days after drilling commenced five and half miles off the Santa Barbara coast, Platform A blew out. The sea boiled with oil.
Union Oil initially denied there was a problem. Then they minimized it. They insisted they had it under control. They didn’t. It took 11 days before Union Oil managed to plug the leak. But then that triggered a violent backlash of high-pressure oil and gas — more than 1,000 pounds per square inch. It ripped five major gashes into the geologically fragile ocean floor. Oil began pouring out — seeping and oozing for nearly a whole year. The upwelling of pressurized oil and gas combined with silt at the ocean bottom created what’s been described as “an emulsified chocolate mousse.” In some places, the oil sat eight inches deep on the water. When the oil made landfall a few days later, it came silently. Black waves falling on the shore made no sound. All was quiet.
At the time, Union Oil president Fred Hartley acerbically noted that no one had been killed in the blowout, while in the nation’s capital, people were murdered all the time. At least 3,600 shore birds, however, were killed. The true number of sea animals that died is likely to be many times more. Of the 1,575 birds “rescued” by well-meaning citizens, only 162 survived. None of the chemical dispersants, or mechanical devices such as skimmers and booms, could stop the seepage or soak up the oil. At the height of the cleanup effort, 1,000 workers, 125 vehicles, and 55 boats were actively engaged. It turned out that the only thing that could sop up the oil was three thousand tons of straw dropped along the shore. Newspaper photographs and televised footage brought the disaster into homes across America.
Cal Ludvigsen / Bud Bottoms COllection
A onetime advertising man with a genius for bumper-sticker sloganeering, Bud Bottoms was the one who coined the slogan “Get Oil Out,” a k a GOO. Here, Bottoms poses with a small handful of the 3,600 birds killed by the spill.
Citizens rallied into action, cleaning beaches, scrubbing birds, and clamoring for action from their elected officials. President Richard Nixon had been in office just two weeks. He dispatched his Secretary of the Interior, Walter Hickel — then widely regarded as a stooge for the oil industry — to Santa Barbara. Hickel was genuinely shocked by what he saw. By the time Nixon wound up firing Hickel — “a loose cannon” — Santa Barbarans had come to see him as an ally. Nixon himself visited Santa Barbara. He was an astute politician who quickly understood that the environment had become an exceptionally potent issue. He would not be outmaneuvered or outdone by such “true believers” as Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine or Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, both of whom responded viscerally and politically to the spill. While Santa Barbarans never fully felt Nixon was on their side, he did sign historic bills creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
In Santa Barbara, Republicans and Democrats alike were calling for a halt to all oil development in the channel. When their political overtures failed, they sued. When that failed, they staged sit-ins at Stearns Wharf — then an active oil operations pier — blocking oil supply trucks from getting in or out. They held “fish-ins” at sea, attempting to block the installation of a new platform then being delivered. And, most famously, they conducted countless “teach-ins,” which led to the formation of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). It also gave rise to UCSB’s Environmental Studies Department. But at the time, the most active of the groups was Get Oil Out, better known simply as “GOO.”
These semi-biblical listings of Santa Barbara’s environmental “begats” are not merely of historical interest — the organizations remain vitally relevant today. At Thursday’s EIR hearing, attorneys with the EDC were leading the charge against Aera’s proposal along with fossil-free advocates from the CEC. And many of the younger speakers who voiced criticism of the draft EIR — but only after having expressed appreciation for the hard work that went into it — were environmental studies students. Their arguments — their noise — are not merely echoes of the past. They are right here, right now.
Where Santa Barbara’s oil spill helped galvanize a new wave of environmentalism 50 years ago — at that time, rivers were so polluted they were catching fire — climate change, global warming, extreme weather, and Donald Trump’s unraveling of environmental protections have instilled in today’s activists a dire sense of urgency. Aera now finds itself going up against the alphabet soup of Santa Barbara’s environmental movement, focused in ways rarely seen in the last 50 years. Rick Rust, it appears, will need far more than his innate likability before the Board of Supervisors to win this fight.
Democrats and Republicans alike reacted in horror to the spill. Here, Richard Nixon, then president just three months, inspects the damage done on Leadbetter Beach. Nixon would sign many bills passed in direct response to the oil spill — including the creation of the EPA. (Get Oil Out (GOO) Collection)