Refugio Spill Underscores Need to Reduce Oil Dependence

If We Drill, There Will Be Spills

The California coast has had a long and challenging relationship with oil, and last year’s Refugio Oil Spill added another anxious chapter to that history.

For more than 100 years, oil development has brought economic gains but has also threatened to exact an unacceptable ransom in return — threatening our pristine coastline, tourism-driven economy, marine sanctuaries and fisheries, and the very quality of life that sustains our communities.

The infamous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the result of a blowout in an offshore ocean platform, still ranks as the third largest in U.S. history. Although it gave birth to the environmental movement, it remains one of oil development’s most significant cautionary tales.

Today, we are saddled with yet another oil legacy we would rather not have — old, abandoned “legacy” oil wells like the Becker Well. Dating back to the 1890s, it has been leaking oil onto Summerland Beach for decades, causing recent beach closures. There are an estimated 200 such wells in our area, and the oil companies that should have capped these wells are long out of business. This year, I’m authoring legislation to require the State Lands Commission to plug these old wells.

A year ago, we experienced the Refugio Oil Spill, when a severely corroded onshore pipeline ruptured, spilling thousands of gallons into the waters off Refugio State Beach. The spill, more modest in scope than the 1969 event, was nonetheless devastating, killing more than 200 birds and nearly 100 marine mammals and costing millions of dollars to our local economy. Key questions remain unanswered about the full extent of damage to our environment, ocean waters, and marine life.

But it renewed the distrust so many of us have long harbored for oil development and Big Oil, and stirred up justifiable anger toward the Texas company that operates the pipeline, Plains All-American.

It also left us with some key lessons.

We’re accustomed to thinking about offshore spills, but the Refugio Oil Spill forced us to reckon with the reality that spills can originate onshore and move into our ocean waters. Most significantly, it exposed serious gaps in federal, state, and county oversight of pipelines and the lack of key safety features on pipelines. The infamous Line 901, which was subject to federal oversight, went from slightly corroded to a rupture in the space of just two years, making it clear that greater oversight and inspection of our pipelines was critically needed. I authored a bill that was signed into law, Senate Bill 295, to ensure annual pipeline inspections by the State Fire Marshal for pipelines under state oversight. If and when Line 901 resumes operation, we must ensure that it falls under more appropriate and tighter state regulations and inspections. I also authored legislation to ensure better response to oil spills by requiring the state to investigate new technologies for cleanup.

But one year later, we cannot lose sight of what was also once again exposed by this spill: our toxic and unsustainable dependence on oil.

There’s nothing like seeing a half-mile slick of crude oil, oil-drenched birds, and a beach transformed into a cleanup site to drive the message home that petroleum exacts a price that is too steep to keep paying.

As long as we rely on oil, no law, regulation, valve, or inspection schedule will fully safeguard against the next spill. Oil is dirty, dangerous, and destructive. If we drill, there will be spills.

This year, California made significant progress toward more renewable energy and energy efficiency by passing Senate Bill 350. But Big Oil successfully beat back a provision of the legislation that would have cut our state’s petroleum use in half and continues to spend millions to influence policy decision-making every year.

The voices for a fossil fuel–free future need to grow louder and more insistent. As we mark a year since the Refugio Oil Spill and more than a century of uneasiness with oil development, our commitment to reducing our dependence on oil must remain strong.

Hannah-Beth Jackson represents the 19th Senate District, which includes all of Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County.


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