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Déjà Goo All Over Again

The Refugio Spill Takes Us Back to 1969

<b>ENDLESS THIRST: </b> The price of oil is plain.
Paul Wellman

BACK TO 1969: The world lusts for oil, and Santa Barbara has to take the consequences ​— ​again.

Ironically, the new spill probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as serious if the oil company that built it, All American Pipeline, had installed an automatic shutoff system.

Barney Brantingham

But All American fought county oversight in court and won a settlement in its favor. It never installed the automatic shutoff. Nor did the company that bought the line and now operates it, Plains All American Pipeline. It is the only oil pipeline in Santa Barbara County without such a safety measure.

I helped cover the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil blowout, and after all the promises and pledges I heard then, I never thought I’d ever have to see more greasy gunk covering and smothering our beaches.

Governor Reagan and president Nixon came, stood on our polluted sand, clucked their tongues in dismay, and went away.

Nixon was pictured in the Santa Barbara News-Press walking on gunky Leadbetter Beach with mayor Gerald Firestone and representative Robert Lagomarsino. The headline: “Nixon Promises to Consider Permanent Ban on Drilling.” Never happened.

Say what you want about Richard Nixon and his promises; to his credit, he proposed the Environmental Protection Agency ​— ​so hated by oil-state politicians ​— ​and it went into effect the year after the 1969 spill.

A long line of politicians share a measure of the blame for lax enforcement of oil regulations, but as Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Us being, well, you and me and the world.

You doubt? When last year’s Measure P fracking ban went on the ballot, Big Oil whomped up a $6.6 million big-lie campaign. The ban would have (sob!) destroyed all we know and love in Santa Barbara, the hucksters told us. And 62 percent of the voters believed the con and voted the fracking ban down.

Only 43 percent of registered county voters even bothered to mark a mail-in ballot. The message, intended or not, was Big Oil, go for it. We don’t need any stinking regulations or safeguards.

Santa Barbarans are furious about the Refugio spill, but the cleanup had hardly begun when a counter-campaign began by pro-oil apologists. It goes like this: In an industrial society that provides so many of life’s benefits, an occasional speed bump can be expected. The oil will be cleaned up before you know it. What’s the big deal? So move on to your normal life, folks. Forget about it. After all, there’s really no one to blame, certainly not the oil companies. Progress requires risks. Adjust, and deal with it.

Well, if you don’t care about your land, others will. Lobbyists for the oil and gas industry are pumping millions into the pockets of our elected representatives. No wonder Big Oil is hard to fight. In 2013-14, lobbyists for the fossil fuel folks spent $144 million influencing Congress. From 2009-14, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), now Senate Majority Leader, got $34 million in campaign “contributions” just for being a public-spirited citizen, and more than a million of those dollars came from the oil industry.

One of the facts of life often forgotten is that oil has its price, but not just what shows on the pump. Getting the slick stuff out of the ground and into our Fords, BMWs, and jets involves hidden costs that are counted in air pollution, water pollution, ground pollution, cleanup, and political pollution.

Just as occurred in 1969, the reckless lust for oil means that safeguards have been short-circuited and cries for controls ignored.

Last week’s horrific pipeline spill that slathered crude on the beaches will be investigated, of course, and we’ll hear about the oh-so-unfortunate glitches that caused it. Just one of those things.

Actually, Plains All American has a spotty record when it comes to pollution. It violated federal environmental rules 10 times between 2004 and 2007, when about 273,420 gallons of crude oil were discharged into waters or shorelines in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas, according to Nixon’s EPA.

Most of the spills were caused by pipe corrosion, the EPA said. The oil company agreed to pay a $3.25 million civil penalty and spend $41 million to upgrade 10,420 miles of crude-oil pipelines, the EPA said in 2010.

According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the company has had 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006, with more than 16,000 barrels in spills that have caused more than $23 million worth of property damage.

Well, chalk up another speed bump.

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