When Unocal’s Platform A ruptured the seafloor of the Santa Barbara Channel 50 years ago today, it caused what was then the largest oil spill ever in the United States and became a critical turning point in history. It sparked widespread environmental consciousness and catalyzed the enactment of many of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. It was a game-changer.
A half-century later, we’re at another critical turning point. Climate change is upon us with a vengeance, and we’re feeling the burn here in California with record-breaking drought, devastating wildfires, extreme weather events, deadly mudslides, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures wreaking havoc on our environment, communities, and economy. Yet the Trump administration is recklessly proposing to re-open massive tracts of federal waters and lands to new and expanded oil drilling, executing a full frontal attack on our environmental laws and agencies — the very ones born out of that tide-turning oil spill — and denying that climate change even exists.
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and many other environmental groups in Santa Barbara and around the globe are working tirelessly to fight further oil development, keep fossil fuels in the ground, and advocate for renewable energy and smart measures to improve our resiliency to climate change. And we’re making an impact. With the active support of Channelkeeper and others, last year the California Legislature enacted critical bills that prohibit the state from issuing permits for leases and associated infrastructure related to any oil extraction, thus severely limiting the options available to offshore oil development in federal waters. Channelkeeper and the Environmental Defense Center just secured a moratorium on any new permits for fracking from offshore oil platforms in the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf until federal agencies assess and address potential impacts to endangered and threatened species, of which there are many off our shores.
We’ve helped defeat proposals for new oil and gas projects, secure stringent limits and requirements for discharges from oil platforms, and extinguish 30 undeveloped oil leases off the Southern California coast. And in the wake of the Refugio Oil Spill in 2015, we worked successfully with lawmakers to institute new reforms to improve pipeline safety and oil spill prevention and response. We’re also addressing climate change locally by championing bans on oil-based single-use plastic “convenience” items, promoting sustainable alternatives to energy-intensive water supplies like desalination, aiding ocean acidification research, and increasing stewardship of marine protected areas to enhance our climate resilience.
While we’ve indeed come a long way since the Santa Barbara oil spill 50 years ago, we have so much more to do. The environmental threats we face today are dire, daunting, and unprecedented. But each and every one of us can make a difference. We must think globally and act locally. Let’s use the anniversary of that tragic oil spill 50 years ago as a renewed call to action, a motivation to fight even harder and smarter, so that our planet is a better, healthier place to live in another 50 years. The stakes are too high to do anything but.
Kira Redmond is executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.