Historic Santa Barbara oil spill changed opinions on offshore drilling

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Forty years ago today, Santa Barbara's Platform A began spurting oil into coastal waters. The multimillion gallon spill didn't stop for months, but it immediately changed the way southern Californians regarded offshore oil drilling. KPCC's Molly Peterson has this story on what people in Santa Barbara think about the practice now.

Molly Peterson: From Union Oil's platform, the spill spread over miles of ocean. Birds turned slick and black with it. Work crews tossed clumps of straw on oily waves to soak it up. Santa Barbara's harbormaster Don Sathre told KEY Television's Bill Huddy that year about the effects he could see.

Don Sathre: All of the boats and the facilities themselves are all coated with thick oozy oil. It's going to take a long time to clean this mess up.

Bill Huddy: You think the harbor will ever get back to its original state?

Peterson: A local newspaperman named Robert Sollen got the first anonymous tip that the seas were boiling at platform A. Years later he told Earth Alert's Janet Bridgers that Santa Barbara's angry opposition boiled up too.

Robert Sollen: The local community was 101 percent against what was happening.

[Sarah Palin leading "Drill, baby, drill" chant]

Peterson: Beyond Santa Barbara, Californians have never been unified about offshore drilling. Last summer, a Field poll found that 51 percent of people in the state supported it – some loudly, like this crowd in Carson; others softly, as when Arizona Senator John McCain spoke in Santa Barbara during his presidential campaign.

John McCain: When people are hurting and struggling to afford gasoline, food, and other necessities, common sense requires we draw upon America's own vast reserves of natural oil and gas. (applause)

Peterson: A UC Energy Institute report says that since the 1970s, high gas prices have always spiked interest in drilling. So oil opponents are trying new strategies. Lawyer Linda Krop, whose Environmental Defense Center has long represented activists, plans to go to Sacramento tomorrow to back a petition for drilling for the first time in her career.

Linda Krop: Now we're not supporting it because it's an oil project; we're supporting it because it's going to end production.

Peterson: A company called Plains Exploration wants permission from the State Lands Commission to drill in an oil field off Santa Barbara on Tranquillion Ridge. Plains – also known as PXP – won Krop's support with separate agreements to pull up stakes at that location in 13 years, and at platforms farther south within nine years. After that, the company pledged it would end its drilling operations off Santa Barbara.

Krop: We have northern Pacific waters that are cool mixing with southern Pacific waters that are warm; we have this mixing zone with incredible levels of biodiversity, and you have incredible threats, so this is the bull's eye. And so when PXP offered to pull out in three other places, and we thought wow, how can we make that happen?

Peterson: People who support more drilling are shifting their position, too. Bruce Allen, with a group called SOS California, says environmental concerns bolster his argument that Americans should produce oil off the coast as long as they can.

Bruce Allen: (clatter of rocks) See the kind of shiny, glossy black look when you break it open? That's weathered tar and then it's solidified oil – see this here?

Peterson: Feels like caramel.

Allen: It's everywhere.

Peterson: In Goleta, Allen walks a strip of sand; tar balls and beached oil smudge his white sneakers. We see a skimming rainbow of oil on the water. All this is evidence of underwater seep areas where oil and gas leak from between layers of rock and sediment on the sea floor.

Allen: Oil that comes from the seeps, the oil from the seeps is chemically the same as what's produced and it does cause harm. It's pollution!

Peterson: Allen says offshore operations have spilled less oil in recent years than UC Santa Barbara scientists say the constant seeps do. We'll hear more about the science of seeps tomorrow. Allen maintains those natural oil releases prove that people should take more control of coastal oil resources.

Allen: For the next 30 years we're dependent on fossil fuels. And rather than buying that oil from less secure sources overseas, it makes sense if we have it domestically to use it, and there's potential environmental benefits, and really it can be done safely.

Abe Powell: I'm trying to get oil out of my life.

Peterson: Abe Powell heads Get Oil Out – a group born after the '69 spill. He's two weeks younger than the organization he runs.

Powell: I'm trying to get oil out of the lives of my friends and my community. That's what I see as the future of GOO. Getting Over Oil.

Peterson: Growing up in a post-spill Santa Barbara, Powell says, endowed him with a strong sense of oil's risks – and with the limits of just opposing it.

Powell: It's one thing to try and stop something. Our oil addiction is hosing us. But the answer is something else. Replacing a bad habit with a good habit is the best way to deal with a problem, so that's what we focus on now.

Peterson: That's meant lobbying his city to run truck fleets on cleaner fuels, and lobbying local petroleum distributors like Ken Olsen to carry them.

Ken Olsen: We'd love to see an alternative fuel. Anything that will run engines and be a little bit gentler on our environment.

Peterson: Olsen's the proprietor of McCormix, a wholesale fuel depot. In the late afternoon, he tosses a ball to his dog and greets the tankers that rumble into his yard. At this moment, everyone's here for oil.

Olsen: I'm anxious for the day the big refiners get on board, and in doing so they'd bring efficiencies. They have the pipelines, they have the storage, they have the terminals, the trucking.

Peterson: Olsen's biodiesel customers are loyal, but he doesn't have very many of them. Petroleum's pricier cousin is a tiny part of his sales – regular diesel still costs 60 percent less than the alternative. Olson says his business isn't ready just yet to put oil in its rearview mirror.