In Memoriam

educating the public on environmental issues

Coast Doesn't Thrive Well When Oil and Water Mix

2007, Ventura County Star

Ask anyone who has watched a loved one with dementia: memory is central to identity, and a person who can't remember the past ceases to be the person he or she was.

We also have a collective memory that shapes our community. Over decades, as new generations are born and grow up and as senior leaders grow old and die, collective memory can fade.

One event that we must not allow to fade from our collective memory is the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The cause of the spill was a cost-cutting measure by Union Oil Co., approved by the federal government, to sink the casing for their drill shaft down to only 200 feet, instead of the total length of the shaft, 880 feet. A blowout occurred below the casing, shattering the fragile caprock of the ocean floor and allowing massive amounts of oil to bubble to the surface and drift ashore.

Bird and marine life was massively impacted. The callousness of the company that caused the spill was reflected in the statement by Union Oil's president at the time, "I wouldn't call it a tragedy because there's been no loss of human life. I'm amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

It was a year before the oil stopped seeping from the hole in the ocean floor, years before the fishing and tourism industries would begin to recover and beach visitors could leave the beach without tar on their feet.

The bipartisan political swell that followed was a major catalyst for federal environmental legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act signed by President Nixon in 1970. Two years later, it was a major factor in inspiring the voters of California to pass Proposition 20, which created the California Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act. Federal moratoriums on new offshore drilling that were established in the 1980s are still in place in California.

But now, 38 years later, many channel coast residents have been born or have come to California since the oil spill and don't have a personal memory of these events. And when gas prices at the pump hit well more than $3 a gallon, many may think that these moratoriums should be lifted. It is precisely at such times that the collective memory must be re-engaged to recognize the harm that such industrialization represents to our well-established, locally owned and operated tourism, recreation and fishing industries. Additionally, we must remind ourselves that the petroleum reserves in the Santa Barbara Channel are asphalt-grade crude, and their exploitation would never result in lower prices at the pump, even if prices were not controlled by international market forces.

After two years of work on a documentary on the history of oil and gas development along the Santa Barbara Channel, I offer several points that the people of the channel must always remember.

The history of coastal oil drilling along the Santa Barbara Channel goes back more than 100 years, which has given the coastal residents plenty of time to observe certain characteristics about how this industry operates.

Throughout that time, the oil industry's primary goal of extracting a resource at a profit has placed the need to protect the coastal environment in second place, at best. "Talk is cheap" and a company's public relations department can write glowingly about the company's great concern for the environment, but profit is always the higher objective.

Even when oil companies' "best practices" are implemented conscientiously, accidents involving human error have a high statistical probability of occurring at some time, though when and where is not predictable.

Finally, the development of offshore, liquefied natural gas terminals in the Santa Barbara Channel, if allowed to happen, will bring a new set of risks, some of them catastrophic, as well as guarantees of increased pollution.

The identity of Californians as Californians is tied to the coast. But the more populated the state becomes, the more pressure is continuously exerted on this precious natural resource.

Therein lies our relationship with this resource. It can't be just something out there that is taken for granted. It must fire something within us that says, "I want this for myself and my children, and I'm willing to help fight to protect it."

Watching and participating in the course of history shows that eternal vigilance is required to maintain more than liberty.

Copyright 2007, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.