What does summertime in Southern California mean to you? Vacation, beaches, surfing, and swimming. Our coastline has earned a reputation for incomparable, outdoor recreation, which drives billions of dollars to our state’s economy. Sadly, the summer of 2015 presented something quite different to Southern California residents and visitors alike. This year was marked by a massive onshore oil spill at Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara with tar balls washing up on beaches in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties.
On May 19, when the Plains All American Pipeline flooded Santa Barbara’s Gaviota Coast with a minimum of 140,000 gallons of heavy crude oil, it closed two state parks and coastal campgrounds for months, shut down over 150 square miles of fishing grounds, killed hundreds of sea birds and marine mammals, and did significant harm to the tourism economy that our coastal communities rely on. This is in addition to ruining the vacation plans of hundreds of families and damaging the clean beach reputation that Southern California enjoys.
This was the largest coastal oil spill in our region since 1969’s great Santa Barbara Oil Spill, an event that has been credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement. But the Plains All American Oil Spill is hardly an anomaly. Spills of varying sizes happen all the time. What this disaster did offer was a clear reminder that no matter what technology is employed, we cannot eliminate risk from oil development — in fact the only way to avoid accidents is to not drill. And where our precious coastal areas are concerned, it is critical for our health and safety, for our coastal economies and for the beaches and waves we treasure, that we say no to further oil drilling in marine areas. The coastline is just too precious and vulnerable to the inevitable damage from the next spill. A legislative bill being debated in Sacramento, SB 788, would stop any further drilling in coastal areas.
This is hardly a fringe idea. Californians have stood for coastal protection and against new oil drilling for so long that many people simply accept a protected coast as a given. Our state has stood strong for years against attempts to open federal waters off our coast to new drilling. And back in 1994 California passed the California Coastal Sanctuaries Act, which prevented oil development in 99 percent of California’s state waters. Unfortunately, the remaining one percent, due to a loophole in the Coastal Sanctuaries Act, is at risk from a new Exxon/Sunset Oil drilling proposal. The area in question is very close to where the Plains pipeline’s oil entered state waters and made its way to pollute our beloved beaches along 150 miles of coast. SB 788 will close this loophole.
The Exxon/Sunset Oil proposal would require an entirely new oil drilling infrastructure, including drilling rigs and pipelines, near Point Conception — a remote area recognized as among the most important and ecologically diverse in the world. It would require slant drilling under a sensitive Marine Protected Area and would put at risk an area so famous for the migration of endangered whales, marine life, and clean surf that it is often called the Galapagos of North America. And of course the Plains spill reminded us that an oil spill doesn’t need to happen offshore to impact our beaches and waters. The May 19 spill took place a quarter of a mile inland, and it still ended up fouling beaches in Santa Barbara, Ventura, L.A., and Orange counties.
The oil industry has been hard at work, walking the halls in Sacramento, lobbying against SB 788, and trying to keep it from passing from the State Assembly and heading to the governor’s desk. Opponents of the bill have made inaccurate statements about the bill’s impact on funds the state receives from current oil operations. But conservation-minded organizations and businesses across the state have been speaking up for SB 788. Fifty nonprofit organizations, 190 businesses from the affected area, and 15,000 individuals have all spoken out for the passage of SB 788.
In the aftermath of the largest offshore oil disaster in California in decades, it is important that we take a moment and stand up for the coastline that defines Southern California and adds so much to our lives, our communities, and our economies. SB 788 is a modest response that will close a loophole and protect Southern California’s coast, but it will also send a strong signal that we will not sacrifice our coastline, which has truly been the golden goose of the Golden State, for more risky oil drilling.
Shaun Tomson is a world champion surfer and one of the architects of professional surfing. Linda Krop is chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. Stefanie Sekich-Quinn is the California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation.