Letter from Sacramento: Lessons from the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Rescued, oiled sea lion in an animal crate 

Rescued oiled sea lion pup June 7, 2015 (credit: USFWS)

June 17, 2015

Nearly a month has passed since that sunny Tuesday morning when a Santa Barbara County woman smelled a strong, oily odor and called the fire department. That odor, it turned out, was the first sign that something was going terribly wrong with an oil pipeline located on land, but running dangerously close to a culvert that empties onto a popular state beach.

By the time the leaking pipeline was shut down, about 101,000 gallons of crude oil—or roughly 2,400 barrels—had spilled from the broken pipe. Most soaked into the soil, but a crucial 21,000 gallons spilled into the culvert. In what seemed like no time, Refugio State Beach was covered in oil and soon after, an oil slick spread until nine miles of coastline and two state beaches were closed to the public.

I first heard about the spill from a colleague via an instant chat feature on my email account. For a split second, I thought it was a joke. Then, as the realization set in that this was real, my mind shifted back to very, very distant memories of watching newscasts of oiled birds and beaches during the 1969 spill in that same area.

Now, a month after the new Santa Barbara spill, the two state beaches in the northern part of the county remain closed and crews continue to scrape oil from rocks and sand. The body count for wildlife comes to 161 dead birds and 87 dead marine mammals. That's probably a fraction of the birds and mammals harmed, given that many affected in spills fly or swim elsewhere to die. Also, this number doesn't include fish and other sea creatures and plants that make up the rich ecosystem.

The price tag to the pipeline owner for cleanup so far is at least $62 million. That figure doesn't include the costs to the local economy from hotel cancellations and lost tourism. And it doesn't include long-term environmental and public health costs.

Initial results of a federal investigation into the causes of the spill show that the burst pipeline had significant erosion. Notably, there was no automatic shutoff valve or electronic alarm system, which could have helped reduce the amount of oil spilled. And as the press has reported, the pipeline owner, Plains All American, has been in hot water before for pipeline operation and maintenance violations around the country, including some that resulted in other serious spills.

All of this suggests that some of the warnings activists—including our very dedicated Club members—have sounded over the years bear repeating again and again:

  • There is no such thing as a safe way to transport oil. In 2015 alone, we've seen oil trains derail and explode in Illinois and West Virginia, even as oil companies file for permits to begin transporting huge quantities of oil by rail from other states to seaports in California. We've seen significant pipeline spills on land in urban areas (Atwater Village in Los Angeles County in February) and rural areas (Glendive, Montana, in January) and the spill in Santa Barbara that fouled the ocean. 
  • We can't win against climate change and remain dependent on oil. Currently, nationwide about 27 percent of the main climate pollutant—carbon dioxide—is produced by transportation engines that depend on petroleum products. In California, transportation fueled mostly by petroleum products accounts for 37 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. To beat climate change, we need to keep the oil in the ground, not enable extreme extraction methods (e.g. fracking) that promote even greater oil dependence.
  • It isn't enough to rely on decreasing demand to end our oil dependence. Of course we want and need cleaner cars and trucks and long-distance travel modes that don't rely on petroleum products. We applaud everyone who is working to transition transportation away from gasoline and diesel fuels. But even if we manage to end demand for oil in California, oil companies will keep drilling in California and transporting oil from here and through here to send to other places unless we have policies that make it unattractive to do so. That means we have to address supply, too, not just demand.

The legislature and the governor have some opportunities between now and early September to demonstrate that they've learned something from the Santa Barbara spill.

First, they can make sure Senate Bill 788 by Senator Mike McGuire gets through the Assembly and is signed into law. That bill would close a staggering legal loophole that allows oil drilling in offshore areas if the drilling is done from a site located on federal land (that is, through horizontal drilling rigs). The loophole would allow drilling in a biologically rich marine area off of Santa Barbara County, called Tranquillon Ridge. A similar bill failed in the Assembly last year, thanks to heavy pressure by the oil industry. (If you'd like to show your support for this bill to protect the coast, sign the petition here.)

Second, they can pass and sign into law two new bills that will improve oil spill response (Senate Bill 414 by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson) and make sure any existing pipelines in the state are better maintained and managed (Assembly Bill 864 by Assemblymember Das Williams).

Third, they can pass and sign into law Senate Bill 350 (by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon), which would, among other things, establish a state goal of reducing oil use in the transportation sector by 50 percent by 2030. Shocking news: The oil industry is opposed to this bill, just as they are to SB 788.

The effects of the recent spill teach us that it's time to close the offshore oil drilling loophole, make sure oil spill response works better, improve management of existing pipelines, and unhook our dependence on oil for transportation. Let's hope it's a lesson that the governor and legislature take to heart.


Kathryn Phillips signature

Kathryn Phillips



Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.

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