By: Connie Kwong
Last Tuesday, May 19, a 24-inch oil pipeline owned by the Plains All American Pipeline ruptured and released over 100,000 gallons of crude oil near Refugio State Beach, just off the Santa Barbara coast. California Governor Jerry Brown subsequently declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered the company to suspend operations and make safety improvements on the ruptured pipe.
Amidst mounting concerns of climate change and environmental crises, and with 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill still a recent memory, last Tuesday’s disaster is underscored by a troubling historical context. This was not the first time that the Santa Barbara coast has experienced an oil spill. 56 years earlier, the United States experienced one of its worst oils spills in national history with the Santa Barbara spill of 1969, in which three million gallons were spilled into the ocean, creating a 35-mile long oil slick along the Californian coast that killed thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals. Simply put, history has repeated itself, and the ecological implications are dire.
After all, environmental disasters create serious long-term problems, and oil spills are especially bad culprits. Perhaps the most visual consequence is wildlife shelter and habitat loss. Just last Wednesday, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration published a study finding that five years later, oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to cause dolphin deaths while sea mammals in the Gulf of Mexico continue to show clear signs of petroleum exposure. Many of the dolphin deaths were attributed to bacterial infection, and marine biologist David Valentine writes, “During the early stages of the Deepwater Horizon event, pristine waters flowed over the ruptured well and became contaminated with the discharge…Sometimes the currents carried previously contaminated water back over the well, injecting a new dose of contaminants into water that now harbored a dense and hungry population of bacteria.”
The grave implications of those findings could certainly be applied to the current situation in Santa Barbara. Coastal bottleneck dolphins are frequent visitors of the affected region. Additionally, many species of shorebirds living in the area can dive deep into the ocean to find food, so exposure to contaminated water would likely harm their populations. Already, five oil-soaked pelicans were found dead along the Santa Barbara Coast, and officials have also reported that oil spill killed an undisclosed number of lobsters, kelp bass, and marine invertebrates. While the state government has delegated crews from various environmental and wildlife agencies to work on cleaning and containing the spill and protecting shorebirds, many of the toxins from the leak directly affect reproductive organs, meaning that a decrease in overall population of species is expected over the next few generations.
If anything, successful cleanup and conservation efforts will ultimately be small victories relative to a much bigger problem. The Refugio spill is tragically the latest rude awakening that the consequences of our petroleum addiction will only continue to multiply if that addiction is not curbed once and for all. We can look at the business practices of Plains All American Pipeline, as well as other oil companies, for examples.
Shortly after the Refugio Spill, Anthony Swift, a staff attorney for the National Resources Defense Council lamented, “It’s shocking that it took the company three hours to shut the pipeline down after it was reported by the public.” In fact, Plains has a less-than-stellar safety record, with 175 safety and maintenance infractions since 2006 and its rate of incidents per mile of pipe more than three times the national average. Still, the company plans to construct a pipeline in Arkansas, the same state where an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured and spilled 134,000 gallons of crude oil into a housing subdivision in March 2013.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported that there were 704 oil and gas pipeline incidents involving leaks or emergency shutdowns to avoid accidents in 2014 alone, resulting in 19 deaths, 96 injuries and over $300 million in reported property damage. Despite the general consensus that pipelines are the safest means to transport oil, the fact that Plains’ Santa Barbara pipeline was carrying well below its maximum capacity of 2,000 barrels before the spill demonstrates that pipeline safety ultimately means nothing in the wake of oil spills.
While the parallels between the Refugio spill and the 1969 spill paint a grave historical picture of ongoing environmental destruction, the phrase “history repeats itself” does not necessarily only carry a grave connotation. The 1969 spill actually galvanized a wave of environmentalist activism across the nation, and for three years after the spill, a state moratorium was placed on all new offshore drilling in state waters, even on existing leases. Moreover, a federal moratorium has effectively banned new offshore drilling in the federal waters off California for decades. Soon after the 1969 spill, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which is often referred to as the “environmental Magna Carta.” And just a year after in 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated and the Environmental Protection Agency was created.
Fundamentally, environmental disasters are a guaranteed side effect of petroleum dependence. The only absolute safeguard against oil spills is ensuring that fossil fuel sources actually remain underground and that we pursue clean and renewable energy, but those reforms are greatly dependent on proactive advocacy. Just as the 1969 oil spill was instrumental in sparking environmental consciousness, the ultimate lesson to be learned from the Refugio spill is that history can repeat itself insofar that we are galvanized to fight for the planet. We need stricter environmental protections, but more than that, we must consider how our addiction to oil underscores how environmentalism is a movement about recognizing, reorganizing, and rebuilding the interactions between humans, nature, and technology in order to promote a more sustainable society.