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Why Oil Spills Still Strike California’s Coast, Half-Century After a Landmark Disaster Changed Environmental Laws

More than 50 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill, the state is still hit with oil disasters. Here’s why.

PUBLISHED OCTOBER 15, 2021
There are still 27 oil platforms off the California coastline.
There are still 27 oil platforms off the California coastline. Susan Quinland-Stringer / Shutterstock   Shutterstock Standard License

More than five miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, on the morning of Jan. 28, an explosion in Union Oil Company well number 21 blasted a geyser of heavy, black crude oil almost a mile straight up to the surface of the ocean. The leak continued to gush oil at a rate of 1,000 gallons every hour until more than 4 million gallons of oil spread for about 35 miles along the coast from Goleta, in Santa Barbara County, to the Ventura County line. The thick, oily sludge extended out to sea until it curled around the Channel Islands of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa.

The oil killed thousands of birds, otters, and other marine life. Dolphin and seal carcasses washed up on beaches, according to a Los Angeles Times account. The spill horrified California and the United States to such an extent that the president himself visited the site of the spill, declaring that the incident had “touched the conscience of the American people.”

That was 1969. The president was Richard Nixon. The spill was the worst in United States history, and stayed that way for 20 years until the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill dumped 11 million gallons into coastal waters off Alaska. In 2010, another offshore oil rig known as Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico shattered all records when it blew up and spewed 130 million gallons of crude into the sea over 87 days.

But the 1969 spill remains a landmark. The offshore oil rig catastrophe “was the most important event that led to the environmental revolution of the 1970s,” according to Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, quoted by the Times. “That was the event that galvanized public awareness of the environment and support for a decade of profound change.”

The spill was a catalyst for activists to start the annual Earth Day, in 1970. Even more importantly, it led to the National Environmental Policy Act, signed by Nixon later in 1969, and California’s own Environmental Quality Act the following year. California quickly slapped a ban on new offshore drilling following the spill. Over the next several years, the federal government enacted a barrage of new environmental laws, all of which affected the offshore oil drilling industry to some extent, including the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as the Clear Air and Clean Water acts.

And yet, even with all of those laws and the heightened public awareness of the damage that can be caused by offshore oil rig accidents, on Oct. 1, 2021—more than 52 years after the Santa Barbara disaster—reports came in from the Orange County cities of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach of a strong smell of gas in the air, and an “observed sheen in federal waters several miles off the coast,” according to a state Office of Spill Prevention and Response report obtained and quoted by the Times

52 Years After Santa Barbara, Oil Still Spilling

The following day, Amplify Energy Corporation, the troubled company from Houston, Texas, that owns three oil rigs off the Orange County coast, informed the state Office of Emergency Services of what had been suspected for the past 24 hours. A pipeline linked to a rig known as Elly was broken and spilling oil into the water.

Later that evening, oil began drenching Orange County beaches as workers frantically worked to prevent it from seeping into delicate wetland areas. The volume of spilled oil topped 140,000 gallons.

More than 50 years, and decades worth of regulations, after the Santa Barbara oil spill, how could this happen? How could it be that California was still coping with oil spills from offshore rigs?

For the answer, we need to go back to the beginning.

California: A State Powered By Oil

In the popular imagination, the history of California is tied closely to a few specific commodities, each of which has done its part to elevate the state from a western wilderness of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants in 1850, when the territory was accepted into the United States, to the economic and cultural powerhouse of nearly 40 million today—the most populous in the country, with a gross domestic product almost twice the size of the second-most economically productive state (Texas).

Tops among those economic drivers at various points over the state’s first 170 years were gold, water, agriculture, aerospace and, of course, entertainment. But somewhat more quietly, California’s exponential growth was driven by oil.

From the first major oil strike by Edward Doheny in 1892—in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—through the early part of the 20th century, the booming and freewheeling California oil industry generated more than 20 percent of all the oil in the world. From the beginning of the industry through 1974, only the state of Texas and the countries of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and the Soviet Union produced more oil than California, according to a RAND Corporation study.

California’s prominence in the world oil industry has declined somewhat since the 1970s, partly due to regulation of the industry after the 1969 spill, but also due to the state’s oil fields getting drained. Nonetheless, California remains a major player, as the seventh-largest producer among U.S. states, at 463,000 barrels per day, with the fifth-largest share of the country’s oil reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (One barrel equals 42 gallons.)

About 4 percent of U.S. oil production now comes from California, and about 10 percent of the country’s oil-refining happens in the state, which ranks third in refining capacity.

Even today, California land is dotted with oil wells, many of them located in alarmingly close proximity to residential neighborhoods, their derricks cleverly camouflaged as ordinary buildings or works of public art.

State’s Oil Industry Moves Out to Sea

The oil industry expanded offshore starting in 1896, when former U.S. Treasury agent and enthusiastic “spiritualist” Henry L. Williams, hearing reports of “tar balls” appearing on the beaches of Santa Barbara, constructed a 300-foot pier off of a beach in the Summerland community and started drilling.

Williams was sure that the “tar” indicated that oil was there. And it was. In the subsequent five years, 20 oil companies rushed to Summerland, building piers as long as 1,250 feet out into the ocean and drilling 400 new offshore wells. The Summerland field pumped out oil for a few years, peaking in 1902 and then was largely abandoned not long after a storm sank many of the derricks the following year. 

There was no regulation of the oil industry in those days. The sloppily constructed Summerland wells never stopped leaking oil, and they still do. In 2019, the State Lands Commission initiated a project to plug those “legacy” wells once and for all.

The first fully offshore oil facility, which started construction in 1953, was Belmont Island, an artificial island located in 42 feet of water a mile-and-a-half off Seal Beach. That was followed in 1955 by Rincon Island, built by Atlantic Richfield Corporation, better known as ARCO. Both facilities have been decommissioned: Belmont in 2002; Rincon in 2020, after being taken over by the state and shut down in 2017. The island, off the shores of Mussel Shoals and La Conchita in Ventura County and connected to the mainland by a 2,800-foot causeway, became part of the California Coastal Sanctuary.

The 1960s saw something of a boom in California offshore oil facility construction. A new island, Esther, went up off of Huntington Beach in 1964, and another four, collectively known as THUMS (for the oil companies that built them—Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil, and Shell) went up in 1967 off of Long Beach.

The THUMS Islands, also known as the Astronaut Islands, have the distinction of being the only fully decorated oil-drilling islands in the country. Designed to look like high-end resorts by Joseph Linesch, whose other credits include Disney World’s EPCOT and the sculpture garden at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the islands contain 1,100 wells, churning out 46,000 barrels of oil every day.

A Boom in Oil-Rig Construction

Esther Island was later scaled back to a platform only, after a violent winter storm in March of 1983 wiped it out. The island’s 42 remaining active wells were not affected by the storm, however, and in 1990 a platform was completed over the wells to allow continued oil production.

The smaller-scale platform-style oil rigs were generally preferred anyway. Platforms named Emmy and Eva went up off of Huntington Beach in 1963 and 1964 respectively. Seven platforms with names all beginning in the letter “H” were constructed in state-controlled waters—up to three miles out—off Santa Barbara between 1960 and 1967.

Four more “H” platforms—Hogan, Houchin (A and B), and Hillhouse—were built in the federal ocean (three to 12 miles offshore) in ’67, ’68, and ’69. All remain operative. But development slowed in the 1970s after the catastrophic Santa Barbara spill, with only three platforms going up in the entire decade.

By the 1980s, the memory of the spill was far enough removed to allow a new burst of offshore oil-rig construction off the California coastline. No fewer than 14 new platforms went up in that decade, including platform Elly in 1980, the same platform responsible for the October 2021 spill. The last new platform, Heritage, went up in 1989 and went into full operation in 1993. The platform is part of ExxonMobil’s Santa Ynez unit in the Santa Barbara Channel, along with platforms Hondo and Harmony.

The Santa Ynez Unit alone produced 30,000 barrels of oil per day until 2014, but ExxonMobil was forced to shut it down in 2015 after thousands of gallons of oil leaked from a corroded pipeline and washed up on nearby beaches. But the transnational oil giant came up with plans in 2020 for a “phased restart” of Santa Ynez Unit  production. In late September of 2021, those plans were set to be heard by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.

State, Federal Bans Halt Building of New Platforms

No new platforms have gone up since 1990, in large part due to the state moratorium on new oil drilling that went into effect in 1969, though not codified as law until 1994, and the federal moratorium in 1982. At the urging of President George W. Bush, Congress let the federal ban expire in 2008, but no new licenses were issued. President Barack Obama then put a new federal moratorium in place in 2011, only to see the ban lifted by the Trump administration in 2018.

In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden imposed a new federal moratorium in January of 2021. But in June a federal judge appointed by Donald Trump blocked Biden’s moratorium and ordered that new offshore drilling leases could again be sold in federal waters anywhere in the country. In August, the Biden administration announced that the federal government, to comply with the judge’s order, would begin selling new offshore drilling leases. But the administration continued its court case to reverse the judge’s ruling.

The lengthy and prolific history of oil-rig construction and production in California goes a long way toward explaining how oil spills are still happening along the state’s coastline more than half-a-century after the Santa Barbara spill “touched the conscience of the American people.” As of late 2021, there are 27 oil rigs off the California coast, 23 in federal waters—plus the “Astronaut Islands” which behind their Disneyesque facade still pump oil up from beneath the seabed.

The High Cost of Decommissioning Oil Rigs

Decommissioning the rigs costs money. A 2020 study for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement by consulting firm InterAct estimated the price tag anywhere from $19 million to $189 million per platform. Decommissioning Elly and its two companion platforms, Ellen and Eureka, would run up a $215 million tab, according to the study. But critics say those estimates are pretty conservative. 

The now abandoned platform Holly, built in 1966 and now called a “ghost ship” in a Los Angeles Times report, is expected to cost $350 million to take down. That’s just one platform, standing in water more shallow than Elly and its two sisters off of Huntington Beach.

There are also environmental costs to removing oil rigs. Ironically, the 27 California platforms have become highly productive habitats for marine life, home to hundreds of thousands of fish and shellfish. According to the trade publication Seafood Source, while federal rules allow conversion of decommissioned oil rigs into artificial reefs where sea creatures can thrive, California has no such “rig-to-reef” program to make it happen, and the feds require states to take over the abandoned platforms if they want to maintain them as marine habitats.

The most important reason why offshore drilling, and its attendant risk of deadly spills, still goes on today, however, is that while rigs cost a lot to decommission, they make a lot of money until the point where they need to be eliminated. Barring laws shutting them down, or natural disasters that destroy them, oil wells are kept running by their owners until they stop turning a profit.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, that can take quite a while. While far from cheap, offshore drilling can cost less and be more profitable than drilling for oil on land. A deep water well can turn a profit, according to a 2020 study by Rystad Energy, if its crude oil sells for $43 per barrel. In October 2021, light crude was going for more than $80 per barrel.

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