Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Pipeline Spill in Santa Barbara Calls Us to Reflect on Oil

An oil spill in the ocean near Santa Barbara, California is reminiscent of a similar incident that occurred forty five years ago. The 1969 spill that killed wildlife and fouled vast stretches of shoreline spawned the modern US environmental movement.

While the 1969 spill was caused by an oil platform blowout, the 2015 spill was caused by the rupture of a 24 inch oil pipe. In the latest spill more than 21,000 gallons of crude are known to have seeped into the ocean before it was finally shut off on May 19th. The resultant oil slick now extends for 5 miles along California's sensitive central coastline which teams with marine wildlife. The spill has fouled Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara forcing evacuation of beach goers. The spill threatens everything from fish to birds and migrating whales. Winds are pushing the spill ever closer to Santa Barbara.

Plains All American Pipeline said the spilled oil made its way along a storm drain that empties into the sea. Cleanup crews onsite yesterday say they were hampered by the spills proximity to the shore. This spill adds to preexisting concerns from residents in the Santa Barbara area who were already upset because local beaches are commonly contaminated by fossil fuels.

This is not the first time that oil has sparked a public outcry in the area. The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 was the largest oil spill in US waters at the time (it was subsequently eclipsed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico). 

The blowout on Union Oil's platform in the Dos Cuadras offshore oil field forty-five years ago spilled 100,000 barrels crude starting on January 28th, 1969. It fouled the coastline of California from Goleta to Ventura as well as the beaches of Santa Barbara county and the northern shores of the four northern Channel Islands. The spill killed thousands of sea birds, dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions.

The 1969 spill galvanized public opinion and resulted in a public calls for action. In the years that followed numerous pieces of environmental legislation were enacted and a regulatory framework was laid that formed the basis of the contemporary environmental movement.

Despite a raft of legislation and regulation we have still not succeeded in arresting oil's reign of terror on our environment and our climate. 

While oil train derailments, drilling platforms blowouts and tanker disasters have stolen headlines over the last few years, the spill in California is another reminder that oil pipelines are also subject to leaks. This event underscores yet again that there is no safe way to transport oil.

UPDATE: A Coast Guard flyover revealed that the oil spill near Santa Barbara is more than 5 times bigger than originally thought (105,000 gallons as opposed to 21,000 gallons). On Wednesday evening California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency to free up more funding and resources. The oil slick is now 9 miles long and a 9 mile stretch of California coastline has already been contaminated. Crews are working feverishly in a race against time to save local wildlife. 

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