From left to right: Laffite Mayor Kerner, Santa Barbara Mayor Schneider, and Coast Guard Incident Commander Laferriere

Forty-one years later, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is still on the minds and in the hearts of Santa Barbara residents. We know it as the catalyst that sparked Earth Day. It is referred to in debates about current and potential new offshore oil drilling in California, and the emergence of renewable and alternative energy sources. And it is a prime reason behind the activism among those organizing the “Stand in the Sand: A Gathering for the Gulf” event on June 27 as they are reminded of our local tragedy with every new news article about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This time in local history is in our psyche — its part of who we are as Santa Barbarans.

So when I received a call from the U.S. Conference of Mayors urging mayors nationwide to see firsthand the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico and learn how local municipal leaders can assist our Gulf Coast colleagues, I thought it was important to attend.

A boom that arrived two weeks too late. Oil damage to the marshland can be seen in the background.
Helene Schneider

Led by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, this one-day meeting included mayors from states as far as California (Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster also attended), Philadelphia, and Massachusetts, along with mayors from each of the gulf states. We received briefings from the Coast Guard and BP about their efforts to cap the well, contain and remove tar balls from the ocean, redirect oil from the coastline, protect the wildlife, clean the oil-slicked marshes, and compensate the livelihoods of those directly affected. We learned how the Gulf oil disaster is devastating local cities, businesses, and fisheries, and we participated in a national effort to change policy that can increase coastal restoration in the Gulf.

Our visit took us to the Emergency Operations Center in the small fishing town of Lafitte, Louisiana, where the Coast Guard incident commander described in detail the current efforts to attach relief valves to the broken well by drilling 18,000 feet through rock. Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner described his frustration on the lack of coordination when the explosion first occurred, resulting in a delay in receiving equipment that could have saved significant marshlands from oil inundation. In fact, the most tragic sight was the marshlands soaking in oil near and around nesting bird sites, with booms around the marsh edges that were placed two weeks too late.

A jack-up barge.
Helene Schneider

Part of the disastrous economic aftermath of this disaster has to do not only with oil but also with misinformation. Seventy percent of the gulf fisheries have not been affected to date; however, this important local industry has been decimated as people nationwide become wary of buying Louisiana seafood. Hundreds of fishermen and their families are now instead working in the cleanup efforts. In fact, their intimate knowledge of the nooks and crannies all along the 7,500 miles of gulf marshes is invaluable to outside regulators who need to figure out how the tides and currents will shift the oil movement from the well 50 miles away toward shore.

Tourism is also negatively affected. Clearwater, Florida Mayor Frank Hibbard describes clean — and empty — beaches in his city as European tourists cancel their summer vacations because they fear the area will become contaminated once they arrive.

Part of the event was to promote Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s RESPOND legislation. The Restoring Ecosystem Sustainability and Protection on the Delta Act is being described as “Fair Share” legislation that would grant Gulf states funds from the oil industry for coastal protection, restoration and cleanup efforts. According to Mayor Landrieu (brother of the senator), Louisiana only receives $0.05 for every dollar of oil produced in the Gulf.

Marshland with a boom in front of it.
Helene Schneider

Certainly the devastating impacts to our vibrant fishery and tourism industry could happen here without proper planning, strong media messages, and coordination. Not an hour went by during this trip without one or more Gulf Coast mayors thanking me personally for being there and urging me to spread the word. As mayors, we are the first contacts to our local constituents and being able to convey accurate and timely information is crucial for cities to respond to disasters safely and recover swiftly.

One only needed to visit the two-day Earth Day celebration last April to know that Santa Barbara is serious about environmental sustainability, reducing our carbon footprint, and getting off this addiction to oil. If we want to be part of a national policy as it relates to energy use in the United States — and I think we do — we need to understand what promotes the status quo of oil production in the Gulf and elsewhere and find ways to break down those barriers to help us move in a new direction. Make no mistake, a region where 40 percent of its workforce is dependent on the oil and gas industry will not automatically bite the hand that feeds them.

A true paradigm shift requires us to reduce our own use of fossil fuels and a willingness and ability to help others find new and lucrative ways to shape energy policy. It won’t happen tomorrow, and it won’t happen in California or Santa Barbara alone.

My experience in the Gulf of Mexico taught me that while different parts of the country today may be at odds about the proliferation of new offshore oil drilling, we all share the need and desire to live healthy lives in beautiful and clean settings and in strong economically viable places. The aftermath of Santa Barbara’s 1969 oil spill might be what motivates us toward a sustainable future using renewable energy sources, but it requires a firsthand look in other places to succeed nationally. For that, I thank the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Mayor Mitch Landrieu for giving me the opportunity to learn how to harness our local collective energy into something bold and visionary nationwide.


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