The New Santa Barbara Oil Spill Is a Reminder of How Little We’ve Learned
For Santa Barbara residents, the recurring scene involving blackened beaches, slick-sheened waters, and muck-covered wildlife isn’t a case of déjà vu—it just feels like it.
On Tuesday, a report indicated that anywhere from 21,000 gallons to 105,000 gallons of crude oil had gushed onto the beaches just northwest of the famously scenic seaside town—made infamous by a 1969 offshore oil blowout that saw around 3 million gallons of oil blanket its pristine coast—the third-largest oil spill in U.S. history.
This time, the rupture wasn’t offshore. It came from a burst 24-inch pipeline about a quarter mile inland from the coast. Crude oil trickled down a storm drain and spread along Refugio State Beach and into the ocean.
The report came in Tuesday around noon, when a beach-going citizen noticed a stench in the air. By 3 p.m., the Coast Guard had found and neutralized the source—an underground pipeline owned by Plains All American, an oil infrastructure giant with more than 17,000 miles of crude and natural gas lines streaming across the country.
The burst line has resulted in at least a quarter mile of oil-splattered coastline, where the high tide from Tuesday night carried globs of crude into the rocky intertidal zone of Refugio State Beach south toward El Capitan Creek.
Zack Warburg, a local photographer, got to the site around 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
“You can see what it looks like in the photos, but what was really upsetting was the smell,” Warburg said. “It was unbearable. After an hour at the scene I left because I was getting such a bad headache.”
By midmorning Wednesday, the wind had carried two slicks—one a four-mile-long ribbon 50 to 75 feet wide and one a triangular slick—about five miles offshore, both heading south toward Santa Barbara’s coast.
"This is more than an inconvenience, this is a disaster,” Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr told the Los Angeles Times.
Clean Seas, the group contracted to clean up the oil spill, has three vessels on the scene skimming oil from the surface, with five other boats towing booms to trap and corral the oil from spreading further. Coast Guard vessels are assisting in the cleanup as well.
Kyle Hanson, operations manager at Clean Seas, said the offshore cleanup should take around three days but didn’t give a timeline on how long the beach cleanup would take.
“Right now, there are around seven or eight cleanup crews working on the sandy sections of the beach, and once they clean those up, they’ll focus on the high-tide portion where the cobble and boulders were left with a splattering of oil,” Hanson said.
According to state and U.S. Coast Guard officials, no wildlife impacts have been reported yet, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a fisheries closure effective one mile east and west of the site.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Plains All American district manager Darren Palmer said the ruptured line had undergone an integrity check two weeks ago but the results hadn’t come back before the breach.
“Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact," the company said in a statement.
This line was part of a larger oil transport network centered in Kern County, where oil is carried from Exxon Mobil’s Las Flores Canyon facility toward Gaviota. The 11-mile pipeline was built in 1991 and can carry 150,000 gallons of crude through the line daily.
For environmental groups, the spill is an opportunity to skewer the “technological advancements” in use that oil companies claim make oil extraction and transportation techniques safe.
“We continue to be vulnerable to big risks from big oil,” said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If we are going to allow this kind of extraction activity in sensitive areas like Santa Barbara, we can expect to see spills.”
Consumer rights group Food & Water Watch used the spill as a chance to remind everyone of the dangers of fracking.
“This incident is all the more reason to ban fracking both offshore and onshore to help prevent future spills and protect Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches and coastal environment," the group said in a statement.
The modern environmental movement was born in part from the reaction to the devastating oil spill of 1969 that battered this same coastline and killed more than 3,600 seabirds along with unknown numbers of dolphins, sea lions, elephant seals, and other marine animals.
The spill was also the catalyst for a freeze on any additional offshore oil drilling in California waters—a moratorium that’s been in place for more than 40 years.
“When you look back, the entire structure of many of today’s environmental laws came in part because of the devastation of the Santa Barbara oil spill and Cuyahoga River fire of 1969,” Reynolds said.
The movement galvanized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the establishment of the California Coastal Commission, considered one of the strongest coastal protection bodies in the country, in the same year.
Clean Seas, the nonprofit group in charge of this new cleanup, was created in reaction to the 1969 spill—oil companies operating in the Santa Barbara Channel formed the group to function as a first responder for oil spills. Its vessels docked in Ventura Harbor can be at any oil spill in the channel within 20 minutes.
It’s a sea change from the old days, when Union Oil’s Platform A erupted offshore and the early cleanup crew response was to throw straw and kitty litter on it, but it doesn’t keep the environment safe from oil’s potential impacts as long as crude continues to be pumped across the ocean and the country.
“They had a safety shutoff valve on the pipe, but it didn’t work,” Reynolds said. “And now we’re seeing oil spread across the ecologically sensitive and unique Southern California coast. Not that we haven’t seen it before, but it’s tragic every time.”
The Western States Petroleum Association said in a statement: “Once the incident is contained and thoroughly cleaned up, they will review the facts surrounding this incident and apply what they learn to prevent future accidents.”
“Safe and responsible oil and gas drilling are myths,” said Friends of the Earth campaign director Marissa Knodel. “Like the 1969 oil spill, let today’s oil disaster be the catalyst for a new movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”