Presidents’ Day may be one of the more dubious excuses to “celebrate” thus far concocted by the Hallmark card company, but the fact remains that it is right around the corner. Typically, I hate stories tied to anniversary news hooks, but this year I think we need to acknowledge another date — January 28. That happens to be the anniversary of Santa Barbara’s late, great oil spill of 1969. It is of legitimate interest now, largely because of who is in the White House and his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, who happens to be a peripatetic, pseudo-resident of Santa Barbara.
On January 4 of this year, these two unveiled grand plans to achieve what they’ve dubbed global “energy dominance.” The center-piece of this scheme is to open up every square inch of offshore federal land — otherwise known as “the coast” — to new oil leasing. That includes the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Throw in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and you get the picture. And, of course, it includes the Santa Barbara Channel. For those just tuning in, the federal government puts together new leasing plans for offshore oil every five years. And every five years since 1984, Santa Barbara has been excluded. This has not been an oversight. Every single omission has been an act of political intention, a late payment on the oil spill.
As changes in policy go, it’s a very Big Deal.
Let’s go back to January 28, 1969, for a second. That’s when the waters off the Carpinteria coast exploded around Union Oil’s now notorious Platform A. Crude oil blasted forth at a rate of 1,000 gallons per hour for more than a month. A 35-mile stretch from Rincon to Goleta was covered in what the L.A. Times described as “a chocolate mousse mat a foot thick.” Today, a disaster of this magnitude might last a few rotations in the spin cycle that passes for news. Back then, it shocked the world.
In the context of Trump, Zinke, and their collective jihad against environmental regulation, it needs to be remembered that Santa Barbara’s oil spill was emphatically not a failure of old, outmoded technology. It was, instead, a premeditated failure to enforce regulations that were on the books at the time. To get to the oil, Union had to drill about a mile under the ocean’s surface. Federal rules required protective casings be installed into the boreholes they drilled. The surrounding shale soil was — and remains — notoriously soft and crumbly. For whatever reason, Union execs got a federal waiver from the existing rules, allowing them to install significantly weaker casing. Maybe someone had dreams of global energy dominance. Turns out there is good reason for those regulations.
Richard Nixon had just been sworn in as president when the blowout occurred. History may have revealed Nixon to be a paranoid anti-Semite and unindicted war criminal, but he was also an opportunistic genius. The oil spill gave rise to an eruption of new, groundbreaking environmental law, and Nixon had the good sense to embrace it. Because of Nixon, we now have the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Environmental Policy Act, which legally sanctified the public environmental review process.
Trump and Zinke, also opportunistic but much less brilliant, want to turn the clock back on that process as well as environmental protection. Even though California has around 900 miles of coastline, Zinke and Trump scheduled just one public hearing on the proposed lease sales. They held it last week in Sacramento, a town conspicuous for its total absence of coast. Even so, about 800 activists from around the state, many from Santa Barbara, showed up to say no way. It was not a hearing in any recognizable sense of the word. It was held inside a library. There was a long line outside; people were admitted inside in dribs and drabs and greeted by well-mannered federal bureaucrats stationed at “listening” tables. There would be no thundering oration from the podium to a packed house. Instead, professional listeners helped members of the public deposit their comments into some vast email void. At last count, about 65,000 comments had been submitted.
In the real world, the state lease sales appear DOA. The State Lands Commission and Coastal Commission have already put the oil industry on notice that they will not approve any infrastructure needed to transport oil from federal waters onto shore for transport and processing. Santa Barbara’s one-two punch in Sacramento — Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Monique Limón — have introduced bills that would have the same effect. It’s worth noting, however, that the only place along the entire Pacific Coast the oil industry has expressed interest in leasing is the Santa Barbara Channel.
Nixon is famous because he resigned from office rather than face impeachment. He asked the CIA to squelch an FBI investigation into the hush money Nixon’s election committee had paid the goons who got caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex.
It remains to be seen if Trump faces impeachment proceedings for his own efforts at thwarting federal investigations. Trump has argued he can’t have obstructed justice; as president, he is justice.
Happy Presidents’ Day. Happy Oil Spill.