Here we go again: The Santa Barbara oil spill of 2015


Here we go again. It was a large oil spill in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Barbara in 1969 — and the pictures of oiled birds and marine wildlife — that shocked the nation, led to bans and restrictions on offshore oil drilling in California and elsewhere, and created the momentum for the very first Earth Day celebration and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, both in 1970. Because of that sad tradition, Santa Barbara is just about the last place on earth you would expect — or hope — to see another oil catastrophe.

But here we are:

An underground oil pipeline that ruptured in Santa Barbara County could have released as much as 105,000 gallons of crude, with tens of thousands estimated to have gone into the ocean, officials with the oil company said Wednesday.

The company, Plains All American Pipeline, said its scenario was based on the line’s elevation and flow rate – which averages about 50,400 gallons an hour. Investigators won’t find a cause for the rupture until they excavate the 24-inch wide line, which was installed in 1987, said Karen M. Rugaard, spokeswoman for Plains All American Pipeline.

When the line ruptured Tuesday afternoon, the oil seeped through the ground to a culvert and flowed into the ocean outside Refugio State Beach. The company estimates about 21,000 gallons of crude went into the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard said a pair of oil slicks are stretching across a combined nine miles of coastline.

There is very much about this story that is disturbing. For one thing, reports suggest that authorities in California — state and federal — have been very slow to respond. One concerned citizen told the Los Angeles Times that he found a severely oiled brown pelican and had to wait three hours for a rescue worker to arrive. But the thing that really bothers me is some of the parallels to BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in my home state of Louisiana. In particular, in just one day the official estimate of the spill has grown by a factor of five, from 21,000 gallons to 105,000 gallons, which is now a sizable spill. Even though the oil flow is supposedly stopped, based on our experience with BP the spill size estimate could grow again, several times.

The more important point, however, is this. We simply cannot afford to expand offshore oil drilling in the Pacific Ocean or to include areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the southern U.S., as President Obama’s Interior Department has proposed. Remember, this finite California oil spill that came from a pipeline that engineers can shut off has so far fouled nine miles of precious, environmentally sensitive coastline. Imagine another hard-to-cap explosion and gusher like BP’s massive rig in the Gulf… and what that could do in the Pacific:

Becca Claassen, Santa Barbara County Organizer of Food & Water Watch, said the Santa Barbara spill provides even more reason for the state of California to ban fracking.

“The oil spill near Refugio State Beach is a stark reminder of the dangerous risks expanded oil drilling poses to Santa Barbara County’s environment and its residents’ quality of life,” said Classen. “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.”

In 2013, an Associated Press and Freedom of Information Act investigation revealed that oil companies had conducted fracking offshore fracking operations in Southern California waters, including the Santa Barbara Channel, over a 20-year period. The oil companies were fracking Southern California waters at the same time that Reheis-Boyd served as the Chair of the MLPA panel for the South Coast from 2009 to 2012. 

You would think that government and Big Oil would learn from their mistakes, but we’ve seen the opposite, time and time again. In Louisiana, for example, a company was just given permission to drill in the same Macondo field where the Deepwater Horizon exploded. But Santa Barbara shows that it’s time for the Obama administration to reverse course and stop the madness of offshore drilling in such environmentally sensitive areas.

Read the latest on the Santa Barbara spill from the Los Angeles Times:

Here’s more info on some of the objections raised by environmentalists to offshore drilling:

Learn more about how we helped expose BP’s deceptions about the size of the 2010 Gulf spill in  my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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