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Oil Spills and Outrage

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In recent days, the news has splashed images of an oil spill affecting the beautiful coastline near Santa Barbara, California across our televisions and computers. Once again, the impact of a poorly regulated oil industry has damaged our national heritage and brought to us the costs of our dirty energy economy. And once again, it is Santa Barbara being impacted.

On January 28, 1969, an oil rig six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara exploded, creating the largest offshore oil spill in American history to that time. It polluted the beautiful beaches of southern California that had captured the American imagination during the twentieth century, portrayed on films and television shows and part of the beach culture phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. Seeing these beloved beaches befouled with oil at a time when Americans were already concerned with the industrial impact of their environment would help change the nation’s history.

The oil industry had long played a controversial role in southern California. As the state became known for its beaches, tourists and developers protested the oil industry’s presence in that beautiful part of the country. Beachgoers in the 1920s found themselves between the picturesque Pacific and a sea of oil derricks. Local residents, led by oil workers’ unions, demanded the industry maintain the character of their towns and beaches. The oil workers unions held beach clean-ups, advocated for drilling limits, and wanted more their towns than the filth of oil pollution. By the 1960s, much of the production had moved offshore, but oil derricks and refineries remained a major feature of the southern California landscape.

When the spill took place, the people of Santa Barbara and southern California responded quickly. An organization named Get Oil Out (GOO) quickly developed. Led by Santa Barbara resident Bud Bottoms, GOO urged people to cut back on driving and boycott gas stations that received fuel from Union Oil. It lobbied to ban all oil drilling off of California and succeeded in enacting new outofsightregulations when drilling did resume. Thomas Storke, editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote, “Never in my long lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level. This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara – it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.” Union Oil suffered greater repercussions for this environmental disaster than any corporation in U.S. history to that time. Company president Fred Hartley couldn’t understand, saying, “I am amazed at the publicity for a loss of a few birds.”

The spill made people around the nation realize the importance of preserving the landscapes they loved from industrialists. In the two years after the oil spill, national membership in the Sierra Club doubled. The state banned new leases for drilling on offshore state lands, although existing leases continued to operate. Today, companies do still drill in California, but the visual impact to tourists is much lower than a half-century ago.

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

If we want to prevent more disastrous oil spills from polluting our coasts, we need to maintain public outrage, and use it to tighten regulations on drilling significantly. We also need to reduce our dependence on dirty fuels like oil, both to end the soiling of our national heritage and to wean the nation off climate change. In an age where good blue-collar jobs are scarce, workers often oppose this, which means we must also support an investment in unionized green jobs green jobs investment. Oil spills affect all of us. Ensuring they do not happen while building economic incentives for workers worried about losing their jobs to support restrictions is a smart, politically responsible, and ethically correct position to take.

Erik Loomis is a historian of both the labor and environmental movements who blogs at Lawyers, Guns & Money. His latest book is: Out of Sight.

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