The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum recently hosted a panel consisting of oilmen and environmental activists alike to discuss topics ranging from local preparedness for a potential spill to the merits (and costs) of future California oil production. The discussion was the latest among several events put on by the museum to christen the opening of its new “Spill’s Broad Reach” exhibit, a student-sponsored display that recounts the disastrous 1969 oil blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel.

The catastrophe was sparked by a pressure control system failure on a Union Oil platform on January 28 of that year, and lasted through February with an estimated 80,000-100,000 barrels of crude released before crews were able to jam heavy drilling mud and concrete into the well on February 7, halting the flow. It was the biggest spill of its time, killing over 3,600 birds and crippling local fishing and tourism industries.

However, in light of the devastation, media attention and public outcry prompted massive legislative overhaul and incited environmental activism on a global scale—leading many scholars to attribute to the disaster the birth of the environmental movement. In the following months, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) were passed, the Environmental Protection Agency and California Coastal Commission were created, and the first environmental studies program opened at UCSB. The spill even garnered the attention of President Nixon, who visited the channel personally, and led Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to advocate for, and later establish, the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970.

Maritime Museum executive director and event coordinator Greg Gorga opened the discussion, which featured six panelists—two from oil-associated organizations, and four from local environmental agencies. “The idea was to bring oil industry and environmental advocates together for a constructive conversation,” Gorga said warmly. Seated in front of a projector in the museum’s central hall, the panelists were divided according to affiliation, split down the middle by moderator Mike DeGruy. Some 30 visitors were in attendance and the event was filmed by Santa Barbara Public Access Channel 17.

The debate got off to a relatively tame start as representatives addressed the question of whether another California spill could reach the destructive heights of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (BP) spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The consensus reached by panelists (on both ends of policy) was that because of differences in environmental factors—such as coarse seabed composition and swift underwater currents—the Santa Barbara Channel is naturally more resilient in the face of prolonged oil seepage. “We don’t have the same type of sediment, the huge mud deposits that lock away the oil until a boat comes along and moves it back up to the surface again,” said Ira Leifer, a researcher at the UCSB Marine Science Institute. “We have very shallow sediment, it’s sandy, [and] there are strong currents: which make for less problems long-term.”

Another source of protection for California waters lies in the state’s comparatively high ratio of oil spill response vessels (OSRVS) to rigs. While the Gulf is host to over 4,000 offshore platforms, a mere 27 occupy the California coastline. Panelist and Navy veteran Ike Ikerd is the general manager of Clean Seas LLC—a nonprofit organization that mans California’s OSRVS in the event that one of its member companies (which include Chevron and ExxonMobil) experiences a blowout. “There are 20 platforms off the Central Coast and we have two boats. That’s a boat to every 10 rigs,” said Ikerd. “The guys that own Clean Seas are required to have them — it’s government mandated.” He likened regulators of big oil to the family repairman who is invited in every Christmas for dinner, and stated that while federal law requires annual platform inspections, close contact is maintained throughout the year.

An hour into the discussion, the long anticipated question of whether California should stay oil dependent or adapt to alternative resources was raised.

The query sparked a heated debate between panelists John Abe Powell, president of Get Oil Out! (GOO), and Bruce Allen, cofounder of Stop Oil Seeps California.

“You have to pay for it,” said Allen, in regard to a renewable transition. “Some people are under the impression that there is a set amount of money that you can spend on oil or renewable resources, which isn’t the case.” Allen pointed to our importation of foreign oil as the true cause of the nation’s economic failure. “The majority of the U.S. deficit is from buying foreign oil. California can produce enough oil to make it oil independent, but we can’t afford to fund the alternatives. Why? Because the state’s broke. I don’t want to see people go broke between now and then. It’s really not practical to get off oil anytime soon.”

Powell, 18 years reliant on solar power exclusively, agreed that foreign importation should cease, but was opposed to the idea that complete oil independence is an impossibility.

He offered his own example, as well as the Norway model of state-owned drilling operations, as good starting blocks for a complete withdrawal. “Not another drop until we get the profit from our own oil,” said Powell. “If you had a goldmine in your backyard and you had two choices to get the gold out, would you choose option one—hire a contractor and reap the profits, or option two—lease it to someone else to produce it and make the profits while you get the scraps. Right now we are choosing option two, and it isn’t working.” However in the long term, Powell views renewable power sources to be the ideal solution. “We have to kick the habit,” he stated. “If we are focusing on oil and gas development, we are not focused on the solution.”

Steve Greig, government relations liaison of Venoco Inc., and Citizens Planning Association member Steven Dunn were also at the discussion.


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