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How an oil spill off California in 1969 reshaped the modern environmental movement

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 28, 1969, an oil spill began off Santa Barbara that took 11 days to stop and leaked about 3 million gallons. The spill and cleanup of 35 miles of coastline resulted in the establishment of several environmental agencies.

We look at the catastrophe and oil operations off the coast today.

California wells

Lasting impact

The 1969 Santa Barbara spill prompted California’s Legislature to ban leases of state-controlled land (extending 3 miles offshore) for oil wells. Bans on new leasing in state waters since 1969 and federal waters since 1984 (briefly waived later in the 1980s) have not halted production on existing leases.

In a retrospective report of the 1969 spill, the department of geography at UC Santa Barbara listed the following outcomes:

• A broad environmental grassroots movement was founded, leading to the first Earth Day in November 1969.

• Get Oil Out (GOO) collected 100,000 signatures for a petition to ban offshore drilling.

• The Environmental Defense Center was founded and the first environmental studies program was started at UC Santa Barbara.

• The California Coastal Commission was created in a statewide initiative. This commission today has broad control over human activities that affect California’s coastal areas.

• The State Lands Commission banned offshore drilling for 16 years — until the Reagan administration took office.

• President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, leading the way to the July 1970 establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

• California Environmental Quality Act became law.

• Federal and state regulations governing oil drilling were strengthened.

Summerland oil wells

California first

America’s first offshore drilling began off Santa Barbara County in the Summerland oil field.

In 1896, the first 300-foot pier with a standard cable-tool rig at the end was constructed. In the next five years, 400 wells on 14 piers were built. At the height of California’s offshore bonanza, there were more than 1,300 rigs.

Spills compared

Here’s how the Santa Barbara spill compares with other offshore catastrophes.

spill compare

Sources: UC Santa Barbara, BP, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, NOAA, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; Photos: Wikimedia Commons


Source: Orange County Register

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