Déjà vu, all over again

The legislative actions that followed the 1969 oil spill would be impossible today; don't let them slip away

News of the oil spill on May 19 at Refugio State Beach created an immediate internal response. “Oh no! How bad is it?” Images in black and white of dying birds, blackened beaches, and lame efforts to scoop oil sprang to mind—images of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout.

Though relatively small in size, this spill ruined the weekend plans of the California families who planned to spend precious holiday time at Refugio this weekend. Hopefully, the spill won’t drift too far down the coast and, also, hopefully, Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, the owner of the pipeline that broke, has all the financial resources to pay for cleanup.

It was after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that an immediate and intense public reaction to offshore oil operations occurred. Union Oil’s greed and errors led to an unprecedented coastal mess that affected the area for years. Beach tar on surfers’ and beachgoers’ feet became a norm. Damage settlements for the loss of tourism and fishing revenues were miniscule relative to the damage.

Though eventually cleaned up, the sense of rage among all Californians resulted in a continuing moratorium on new offshore oil drilling. It led to passage in 1972 of Proposition 20, creating the Coastal Commission. Four years later, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Coastal Act of 1976—40 years ago next year. 

This legislation and the work of the commission have kept the California coast a place to be enjoyed by the many, not just the wealthy and privileged few. Think of it! You can take the kids to Disneyland and drop hundreds of dollars in a day. You can take the family to a movie and easily spend $50. Or you can go to the beach with a picnic lunch and pay less than $10 (for parking). And there you may spend the day with a sweet breeze on your face, the warm sun on your skin, and come away with a memory that can last a lifetime.

We are continuously reminded that, given the partisan deadlock in Congress, the strong federal environmental legislation enacted with bipartisan support in the early ’70s would never have a chance of passing today. For different reasons, Proposition 20 could not pass today in California. Two of these reasons are that we no longer have the strong base of volunteer signature gatherers that qualified that proposition for the ballot, and that during his early presidency, President Ronald Reagan dismantled the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine regarding “balanced” coverage of important public issues. A ruling on the Fairness Doctrine gave important TV coverage to the cash-strapped Proposition 20 campaign in the last couple of weeks of the campaign and an ability to, therefore, counter misleading advertising paid for by well-heeled interests opposing the initiative.

The takeaway? What we have now in terms of environmental legislation in general and coastal legislation in particular is the best we can have in the foreseeable future. Similar legislation could not be resurrected if public distraction and disinterest allows it to be dismantled.

I was still in my late teens when the 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout occurred, but I remember the photos of the oil-soaked birds. Though I did not become politically active for another decade, I’ve now been an environmental activist for more than 30 years and have had the honor to know and interview many major figures involved in passage of Proposition 20 and the early days of the Coastal Commission. Many of them have since passed away.

For young people, a span of 40 years may seem like eternity. I can assure them it’s not. But perhaps this spill will create more awareness of what we have and what could be lost if voters are not sufficiently informed and energized to monitor the state’s legislative bodies, and the appointment process for the Coastal Commission to ensure that these protections can last another 40 years, and another 40 after that. To paraphrase Jefferson, eternal vigilance is the price of coastal access and enjoyment for the people of California!

The California coast belongs to the people of California—guaranteed by the California Constitution. To see the beautiful little beach at Refugio State Beach fouled once again by oil operations serves as a not-so-gentle reminder of why we still need strong coastal protection laws.

Janet Bridger is one of the co-founders of Earth Alert, an environmental activist, and a filmmaker (Sand, Sun, Oil, and Gas; Stories of the Spill: How Santa Barbara’s Beach Catastrophe Became a Lesson in Democracy; and Sharing the Channel). She can be reached through Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].

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