Images from the March 10 edition of the Telegram-Tribune, volunteers are washing oil from the feathers of a grebe hoping he will be one of the 25% who survive. Another photo shows oil muck being scraped from a Santa Barbara beach. Photos were by David Ranns
January 29, 1969
Offshore oil drilling has been touted recently as the solution to high oil prices. Some political statements sound a lot like an old Exxon commercial. The United States currently consumes over 25% of the world oil output.
The Central Coast has strong reasons to have a love-hate relationship with oil.
In the early 1900′s the oil industry brought the area some of the first good paying non-farm jobs. No one ploughs with a mule anymore or reads by whale oil lamps.
In the 1960′s cartoon tigers made our cars run better and uniformed attendants wiped down our windows.
Somewhere along the way the perception oil companies soured.
One could argue the galvanizing moment was the Santa Barbara oil disaster of 1969.
Six miles off of Summerland, 3500 feet below the ocean floor natural gas pressure was pushing under platform A.
Union Oil, author of the biggest spills in San Luis Obispo County (Avila Beach, Guadalupe Dunes), was the owner of the drilling platform.
Investigation revealed Union Oil had been cutting corners. The oil giant got permission from the U.S. Geological Survey to use casing pipe thinner than federal and California standards. The more strict state standards only applied inside the three-mile coastal zone.
When drilling mud fell below the safety margin, the pipe ruptured and broke an east-west fault in five places releasing oil and gas for 11 days. Later fault breaks would continue the spill.
Sea birds, seals, dolphins and beaches were coated with black goo.
Quoting Telegram-Tribune staff writer Gilbert Moore in an article from February 15, 1969:
“It churned and bubbled to the surface through a sea floor fissure for 11 days, turning the channel into a vast oil slick.
It coated miles of peerless beach with sludgy slime.
It captured loons, sea scooters, grebes-hundreds of them-in a cocoon of death.”
In addition to the environmental damage, it was a public relations disaster for Union Oil (now Unocal). Driving distance from a media capital of the United States, Los Angeles television crews and photographers transmitted images across the world of dying birds and volunteers throwing straw on the beach to mop up the oil.
Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil offered this reaction, “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”
The disaster united ecology organizations, and brought many into the political mainstream. Earth Day would be founded in the wake of the event.
The Environmental Protection Agency was created December 2, 1970. I somehow doubt Union Oil sent them a cake.
Oil and environment have been such a large part of the history of the area I have added a categories to the blog for organizing future posts.