An oil spill in Santa Barbara and the unlikely environmentalist

“I don’t like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”

Fred LHartley, President of Union Oil Company

On January 1969, the Vietnam war was raged on. Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States.  On his inauguration day, on 20 January 1969, protestors throw rocks, bottles and other objects at his motorcade and major protests were taking place across the country. Nixon had run on a platform that opposed the war, but in order to become president, he needed the war. During the Vietnam peace talks, in Paris, in October 1968, U.S. was ready to agree to halt bombing Hanoi, but Nixon sabotaged the peace talks – he secretly persuaded the South Vietnamese leaders not to agree a deal before the election. The war lasted another five years.

Vietnam was not the only issue that disturbed the first days of Nixon’s presidency. A few days after the inauguration, on 28 January, 1969, about five miles off the coast from the seaside town of Summerland, in the county of Santa Barbara, California, all hell broke loose.


It is difficult, for a visitor, to imagine that this traditional town with the beautiful sandy beaches were once home to some of the earliest offshore oil rigs. At the end of the 19th century, the local residents noticed the natural oil seeps on the shores and in the ocean around Summerland, signs for underground oil reservoirs in the Santa Barbara Channel. The first offshore drilling for oil in the Unites States took place to Summerland, in 1896. The wells were drilled from piers built over the water.

Oil wells just offshore at Summerland, California, c.1915

On the morning of 28 January, 1969, an offshore drilling rig operated by Union Oil called platform Alpha suffered a blowout. 3.2 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Santa Barbara Channel and on surrounding shorelines. It was an industrial accident that had catastrophic effects. The spilled oil killed thousands of seabirds –  more than 3.500 feeding birds were estimated to have died because of contact with oil –  and immeasurable marine life. A large number of seals and dolphins were poisoned, and kelp forests were devastated. It filled 35 miles of coastline with black goo. The local community was stunned.

Thousands of volunteers form all backgrounds, age groups and political persuasions joined the clean-up operations. They cleaned tarred seabirds and transferred them to temporary animal rescues that had been set-up soon after the disaster.

The oil spill aroused such a public outcry and media attention that president Nixon visited the site. He inspected the polluted waters from a helicopter and scrolled across the beach with Secretary Hickel and a larger number of broadcast reporters. It is recorded to have said:

“It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people … The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”

President Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara in 1969 prompted stronger federal environmental protections. Photo credit: National Archives

In a W.H. statement published later the same date, Nixon stated: “The obligation to develop our natural resources carries with it the duty to protect our human resources. This country can no longer afford to squander valuable time before developing answers to pollution and oil slicks from wells, tankers, or any other source.”

The spill was a seminal moment in the American environmental history and changed forever the trajectory of oil and gas exploration in California. Nixon was not particularly interested in the environment but he immediately recognised the political power of environmentalism.  A moratorium has been placed on all new offshore drilling in state waters. Tighter and more effective regulations were initiated for all wells operating off the coasts of the United States and new federal policies were established that required platform operators to pay to the clean-up costs themselves, along with penalties of up to $35 million.

The Santa Barbara was the largest and worst oil spill in United States waters at the time, and now ranks third after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills.

In the aftermath of the Santa Barbara spill, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 and on 1st January, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, 1969, one of the first laws ever written for the protection of the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born on December 2, 1970 with the purpose to protect human health and the environment.

The landmark 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA, paved the way for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act (CAA).


It’s 47 years since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. President Trump and many of his top aides, including EPA’s administrator Scott Pruitt, have expressed scepticism on the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is far and away the primary cause of climate change.

“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,”

 Scott Pruitt, Thursday, 9 Mar 2017, on the CNBC program “Squawk Box.

On June 2017, EPA’s spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement that Scott Pruitt will lead a formal “back-and-forth critique” initiative to challenge mainstream climate science using scientists recruited by the government to take different positions. The program will use “red team, blue team” exercises to conduct an “at-length evaluation of U.S. climate science,” a concept common in the military to help leaders identify vulnerabilities.

References and further reading:
  1. Clarke, K. C. and Jeffrey J. Hemphill (2002)The Santa Barbabra Oil Spill, A Retrospective. Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, Editor Darrick Danta, University of Hawai’i Press, vol. 64, pp. 157-162.
  2. Statement on Coastal Oil Pollution at Santa Barbara, California, February 11, 1969,
  3. Nixon and the Environment by J. Brooks Flippen, University of New Mexico Press, 2000

  4. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said Thursday he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming, Thursday, 9 Mar 2017, Access, 10 July, 2017
  5. Emily Holden, Pruitt will launch program to ‘critique’ climate science, E&E News,
  6. Featured Image: Workers clean up the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill © flickr commons