On January 28, 1969, an offshore drilling platform operated by Union Oil six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, experienced a blowout — an uncontrolled release of crude oil after pressure control systems failed.¹ Less than 24 hours after the blowout, a 75 square mile area of ocean was covered in oil. One thousand gallons escaped from the well every hour for over a month. Until the blowout was capped, a total of three million gallons of black, viscous oil were released, creating a slick 35 miles long. The spill killed at least 3,600 birds and untold fish and sea mammals, including seals and dolphins, and marred the coasts of California and the four northern Channel Islands. (Despite the impassioned efforts of hundreds of volunteers, tarred birds had a survival rate of approximately 12%.) It is the 3rd worst oil spill in U.S. history, eclipsed only by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe (which dumped 200 million gallons of crude in the Gulf of Mexico) and the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez spill (which released 11 million gallons in Alaska’s Prince William Sound). It remains the worst oil spill in the history of California. The cause: inadequate safety precautions.²
Out of disaster often comes good: The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is credited for having sparked the ‘green revolution’ in California,³ as it led directly to the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law intended to reduce the potentially harmful impact of development on the environment. The legislation, signed by President Richard Nixon, requires developers to outline potential environmental impacts of projects before they begin.
That same year, then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed California’s Environmental Quality Act. The CEQA legislation provided additional safeguards to bolster those of the National Environmental Policy Act. It was specifically intended to reduce the likelihood of another environmental disaster like the one off the coast of Santa Barbara. Offshore drilling became one of the most heavily-regulated industries in California.
Note the signers of both pieces of legislation. In those days, the environment was a shared concern, not the partisan issue it is today. Also note that over the last few years the current administration has been quietly rescinding policies and laws designed to protect the environment and those who rely on it.
Last week, as we approach the anniversary of the 1969 disaster, the White House announced that it will roll back the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act. The administration has stated that it is attempting to reduce the scope of projects requiring environmental reviews and decrease the time it takes to do so. Included is their intent to eliminate the need for developers to define potential ‘cumulative effects’ of a project — thus sidestepping any concern for global warning or the planet’s health, much less that of the immediate environment in which the project is destined. Their clear goal: to make it easier and more profitable to drill, build, mine and deforest, regardless of the impact those activities may have on the land and the planet. Sadly, the CEQA, which remains beyond the reach of the administration, does not cover lands regulated by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Ironically, forests and parks set aside by previous administrations will no longer be protected by the government. They will be available to the highest bidder for, among other things, drilling, pipeline construction, and logging.
Thus continues the administration’s relentless attack on our lands, our air, and our water. According to National Geographic — a news source yet to be accused of disseminating ‘fake news’ or being an enemy of the people — the administration has taken many steps to reduce or eliminate environmental safeguards established in previous administrations.⁴ For those willing to believe the New York Times, its list of 95 environmental protection takeaways is even more comprehensive.⁵ The administration has clearly been quite busy. Regardless of your political affiliation, be prepared to be sobered by whichever list you peruse. Especially if you appreciate clean air and water.
California, unfortunately, has been the focus of much of the administration’s attention. In a highly-publicized move, it recently eliminated the state’s right to set standards for auto emissions — which had been higher than those set for the nation. The state’s more aggressive mileage and emission requirements have been widely credited for the dramatic reduction of smog in major metropolitan areas. In the Los Angeles basin, for example, the San Gabriel mountains are again in clear view. The stricter emission standards are also credited for leading the nation in a pursuit of more fuel-efficient, less polluting automobiles. So much for that.
The state has also come under attack recently with the unfounded and completely false claims by the president that the homeless are polluting the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, that syringes and untreated human waste are going from sidewalk to gutter to drain to the bay and to the ocean beyond it. Mr. President, I hope you know that this is impossible. Believe it or not, we have sophisticated wastewater management systems designed to protect the bay and the environment. Say what you will, but we in California care about water. It’s a natural outcome of living in a region prone to droughts, one in which wild fires are becoming a regular occurrence that no amount of forest raking will prevent.
We also care about the air. The price of gasoline in California, on average, is approximately $1 more per gallon than it is elsewhere in the continental U.S. The price difference is even greater in the Bay Area.⁶ A number of factors contribute to this gap, but the most significant is the fact that we in the Bay Area have voted repeatedly to insist that our gasoline is treated specially and more carefully to reduce carbon emissions. We know — and embrace — that costs are involved in ensuring clean air, costs we’re willing to pay. It’s also a primary reason why California leads the nation in the sale of hybrid and electric cars.
So, on behalf of those in California who care about pristine coasts, clean air and water, and the preservation of our natural resources, I ask politely, Mr. President, please respect our interest in and commitment to the environment. We’re doing what we can to protect our small piece of the continent and hope you would honor our efforts by allowing us to continue our pursuit to lower carbon emissions, increase the cleanliness of our water and maintain our coasts. Anything short of that will jeopardize the health of our grandchildren and their children, yours included.