Just before 11 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1969, a Union Oil crew on Platform Alpha located in 188 feet of water some six miles off the California coast was extracting a drill bit from a newly dug 3,500 foot-deep well. As the crew brought up the pipe, they pumped drilling mud back down the well in efforts to keep it stabilized. But the pressure from natural gas in the well was too much, and just after the drill bit was extracted, an explosion showered the platform with a mass of oil, debris, and mud.
The men on the rig were unharmed, but alarmed. In the next few moments they desperately tried to stave off disaster, but every step they took made things worse. They tried to avert a blowout by capping the upper portion of the well; they tried to plug the hole with drill pipe, but cracks quickly formed on the soft ocean floor. The infamous Santa Barbara oil spill was underway. It took 11 days to stop the hemorrhaging, and by then 3 million gallons of oil had escaped into the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred last year at this time, no one died during the 1969 spill. Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil, made much of this fact. Foreshadowing the 2010 tone deafness of BP President Tony Hayward, Hartley said: "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."
It was much more than a few birds, of course, and the public knew it. The American people had been given a glimpse of the vast ecological destruction that an industrial accident in the late 20th century could produce. The nation's elected officials reacted accordingly. Interior Secretary Walter Hickel flew to California to see the damage first-hand. He was followed there weeks later by native Californian Richard Nixon.
"I think that the Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people," President Nixon told an audience gathered on the beach.
Within a year, the Nixon administration was presiding over a new government department, the Environmental Protection Agency. Also, the first Earth Day was celebrated - the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat. Those initiatives would be followed in short order by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Water Act, and the establishment of an environmental studies major at the University of California campus in Santa Barbara.
California's first-term governor, a self-styled "citizen politician" named Ronald Reagan, signed a tough new water quality law that called for fines for polluters. Reagan also actively supported a measure preserving the wild and scenic quality of several major rivers in Northern California.
"The blowout was the spark that brought the environmental issue to the nation's attention," recalls Arent Schuyler, lecturer emeritus in environmental studies at UC-Santa Barbara. "People ... began forming environmental groups to protect their communities and started fighting for legislation to protect the environment."
In the grim days after the Santa Barbara spill, Southern California nature writer John McKinney was struck by the sight of college students, surfers, and local business owners working side-by-side on the volunteer clean-up efforts as the oil washed up in the Santa Barbara County beach towns of Montecito, Carpenteria, and Summerland. "I saw a Montecito society matron transporting oil birds in her Mercedes," McKinney recalled.
One wonders what happened to that cohesive national spirit. Four decades later, Earth Day is still an annual event. In some ways, it has become as ubiquitously American as baseball and Mother's Day. In other ways, it is a ho-hum affair that lacks the passion and mystique it held in the early 1970s when Americans hiked, spoke, and advocated for a cause that seemed to unite us all: the health of our planet. Not any more. The exigencies of conservation have been caught up -- like so many other issues in our time -- in the maw of our hyper-partisan politics.
That in many ways is the lesson of last's year's BP spill, an ecological disaster that was orders of magnitude worse than the Santa Barbara spill. For one thing, 11 men lost their lives in the Deepwater Horizon blast of 2010. And some 206 million gallons of crude oil gushed into the gulf, making it nearly 15 times worse than the Santa Barbara blowout and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill combined.
Yet what has been the upshot?
Not much, is the disquieting answer. Governors from states with off-shore oil immediately demanded that there be no moratorium on deep water drilling; about 70 percent of Americans favor off-shore drilling, the same as before the spill; Republicans in Congress are attempting to weaken the EPA; and President Obama's circumspect remarks on the one-year anniversary of the BP spill earned him a sharp rebuke from one of the nation's leading environmental groups.
"This oil spill is the biggest environmental disaster in our history, and the president should have recognized the ongoing harm being caused," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president and CEO for Defenders of Wildlife. "Oil continues to wash up on beaches and pollute coastal marshes ... We are dismayed that in the year since this huge, human-caused disaster occurred, the Obama administration has still not pushed for legislation that would reform a badly broken offshore drilling system and ensure protection for workers, wildlife and the waters on which we all depend."
Adam Rome, an environmental historian at Penn State University, has said that the BP disaster was "a dud" in public policy terms - despite the massive scale of the spill and the dramatic and extended efforts to staunch the flow of oil into the gulf.
"Within a year of the Santa Barbara spill you had Earth Day," Rome said. "Within a year you had the EPA."
The biggest difference between now and then, Rome believes, is political polarization.
"A lot of people underestimated how partisan environmental issues have become," he said in an interview Thursday. In 1969, he noted, a Republican president and a Republican governor of California wanted to show their concern for the environment. Today, by contrast, conservation is identified as a "liberal" cause and in a nation where there are few undecideds even when it comes to voting for president. As a result, the vast majority of voters, are locked into a host of pre-determined positions on policy.
"In retrospect," Rome says, "it was unlikely that this spill would change the terms of debate about energy or climate change - or even off-shore drilling."
There are other factors, as well. For starters, the economy in 1969 was on a lot stronger footing than it is today. And pollsters have long noticed a reluctance on the part of the public to embrace sacrifice on behalf of the environment during difficult financial times. In addition, the Deepwater Horizon spill didn't quite look like Santa Barbara or the Exxon Valdez - mostly because the oil spilled so far from shore and at such depths.
Perhaps in the long run, the BP spill has entered our consciousness as a nation, however, and we're just not quite aware of it. That's the optimistic take of Brian C. Black, an environmental historian at Penn State-Altoona. And since today is Earth Day, we'll give Professor Black the last word. He concedes that attitudes toward drilling are similar to prior to the BP spill, but he asserts that the main reason for this attitude is that the soaring price of gasoline and other disruptions in the Middle East have made Americans jittery about their sources of energy.
In terms of positive fallout, Black points to an increased role for federal regulators in safety oversight. He also believes that great inroads have been made in presenting options to the internal combustion engine to consumers.