By Serge Dedina
OC Voice Columnist
On Jan. 29, 1969, a Union Oil platform located 6 miles off of the coast of Santa Barbara experienced a major blowout. Over 3.6 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the ocean over an 11-day period resulting in an 800-square mile oil slick and devastating more than 35 miles of coastline from Rincon to Goleta. The disaster, one of the worst in U.S. history, resulted in the deaths of thousands of sea birds and marine mammals.
The Santa Barbara oil spill was so devastating and its impact so far and wide along what is considered one of the world’s most beautiful and economically valuable coastlines, that President Richard Nixon declared that, “The Santa Barbara incident has, frankly, touched the conscience of the American people.”
The public response to the disaster was immediate and overwhelming. Thousands of volunteers, surfers, society matrons, students and people from every walk of life helped clean up oil-slickened beaches and rescue injured sea birds and marine mammals.
Since then, there have been over 31 major oil spills worldwide plus thousands of smaller spills. This includes the 1979 Lxtoc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During that disaster more than 140 million gallons of crude oil were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. The 58,000-gallon oil spill from a container ship last November in San Francisco is considered a minor spill. According to Mark Massara of the Sierra Club, a longtime Ocean Beach (S.F.) surfer, “Within hours the spill fouled large stretches of San Francisco bay and then moved out of the Golden Gate Bridge and fouled beaches north and south.”
In 1990, precisely to prevent the specter of additional spills, President Bush Sr. adopted the first president moratorium on offshore oil drilling. That ban stood until his son’s recent lifting of the moratorium, which awaits a vote by Congress.
Lifting what was once a solid bipartisan policy (Floridians don’t like the idea of oil spills ruining their tourism economy either) was not surprising. Bush is continuing his strategy of appeasing big oil without addressing the real energy needs of the United States. This comes at a time when, according to Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the United States should be holding a “national debate on setting the goal of eliminating CO2 emissions for the U.S. economy as rapidly as possible.”
The organized campaign to transform the coast of California into the newest cash cow for the oil industry began during the first year of the Bush administration. That is when the aides of Vice-President Dick Cheney held a top secret meeting with executives from Conoco, BP America (now merged with Phillips), Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil in order to develop a national energy policy. Since the meeting notes were never opened to the public, one can only imagine what the topics of discussion included. However since Jan. 2001, prices at the gas pump have increased from $1.47 per gallon to around $4.50 today. The price of a barrel of oil increased from $30.63 in Jan. 2001 to close to $150 a barrel today. As a result oil companies are posting record profits, the U.S. economy is entering into what appears to be a recession and President Bush has lifted the Presidential moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
Apparently, the President believes that opening up the waters of the United States to his oil company partners will provide us all with immediate relief at the gas pump. But will lifting the ban lead to lower gas prices through more oil exploration? According to White House Press Secretary Dana Perino (as told to the Associated Press), “In terms of allowing more exploration to go forward? No it doesn’t.”
Of course oil drilling is not new to Southern California and its coastline. There are about 27 offshore oil platforms and 6 artificial oil and gas islands off the central and southern coast of the state. Between 1969 and 1999, 943 separate spills occurred off our coastline contaminating a fragile marine ecosystem. Oil spills also threaten a coastal economy that, according to a study by the National Ocean Economics Program, is one of the world’s largest, valued at $42.9 billion annually.
Richard Charter of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund is leading a statewide coalition for environmental groups gearing up to fight the new efforts to drill for oil off California’s coast. He believes that new drill sites would not be located far from shore as some analysts have suggested. According to Charter, drilling would occur “throughout Santa Monica Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the entire coast of Orange County and off of La Jolla.”
Since oil slicks move about 1 mile an hour, it would only take an afternoon of onshore winds to blow a major slick onto beaches. That is besides the ongoing release of mercury, cadmium, arsenic and hydrocarbon compounds from drilling sites.
So the question is not whether offshore oil drilling in California will reduce the current pain at the pump. It will not. According to California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan, the real issue is whether we can afford to transform our “beautiful coastline for everyone to enjoy that has tremendous economic benefits” into an industrial park or not.
Our coastline is too valuable to risk losing because we are too impatient to develop an energy policy that looks to the future instead of being mired in the past.
Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an organization dedicated to protecting coastal ecosystems and wildlife. http://www.wildcoast.net