Santa Barbara Oil Spill, The (1969)

By Chris Moloney, Colorado State University, CO


On January 28th, 1969 at 10:45 a.m. an ocean oil well located off the central California coast not far from Santa Barbara ruptured releasing thousands of gallons of crude oil into the sea. The “blowout” of the well run by Union Oil’s “Platform A” drilling rig resulted in significant environmental, social and economic harms to the region. Importantly, the Santa Barbara oil spill became an instrumental catalyst leading to the development of vigorous environmental activism and stewardship movements. The Santa Barbara oil spill remains a watershed event in the annals of U.S. environmental history where it occupies a prominent place alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, both of which have shaped the course of U.S. environmental policy at the state and federal levels.

The Oil Spill and Impacts

The Santa Barbara community long opposed oil exploration and extraction within the Santa Barbara channel prior to the Platform A disaster. Efforts to keep the channel free from oil rigs succeeded only within the 3-mile state-controlled ocean buffer. In 1968, the Federal government began leasing oil drilling rights beyond the state controlled boundary. Union Oil (later UNOCAL, now merged with Chevron) purchased a federal lease to drill for oil 3,500 feet below the ocean surface along the Venture Avenue Anticline, which runs through Santa Barbara channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at the time in charge of approving all drilling applications, did not hold public hearings on the proposed Platform A drilling application despite requests by some members of the Santa Barbara community to do so.

On the morning of January 28, 1969 the crew of Platform A were attempting to remove a drill from an oil well bore hole. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had granted Union Oil a waiver allowing them to use a casing—designed to reinforce the well and prevent blowouts—that did not meet the state or federal minimum requirements. As the drill was extracted from the well and mud was pumped in to seal the well, a buildup of pressure ruptured the casing causing a blowout and the release of oil and natural gas into the surrounding ocean.

Over the course of 11 days over 200,000 gallons of oil spewed into the waters of the Santa Barbara channel. The well was finally capped on February 12, 1969. Capping the well, however, caused another pressure build-up, causing oil to seep from several places along a natural ocean floor fault line. The additional leaks were sealed by March 3, but oil continued to seep from beneath the ocean for several years. In all, over 3 million gallons of crude oil released into the ocean off the Santa Barbara coast, effecting an 800 square mile area and saturating 35 miles of beaches and coastline with oil that was more than six-inches thick in some places.

Environmental devastation and harm was significant. Over 3,600 seabirds were confirmed killed, though the true number was likely higher, and countless other marine mammals, fish, crustaceans and invertebrates were also poisoned and killed. Dead dolphins and sea lion pups washed ashore, while triage and care centers for effected wildlife were set up at numerous locations, including the Santa Barbara Zoo.

The Santa Barbara community was especially impacted due to its proximity to the spill, witnessing tourism and local business revenues decline. The quality of life for residents also declined since the noxious smell of petroleum hovered over the area for months as crews worked to clear oil from the surface of the Santa Barbara channel and the area’s once-pristine beaches.

Legacy of the Oil Spill

Within days of the spill, Santa Barbaran’s mobilized to aid clean up efforts. Many community members also committed themselves to speaking out against coastal oil drilling and the lax government regulation of the industry. A grassroots organization aptly named GOO (Get Oil Out) formed and started a petition that eventually garnered over 100,000 signatures to halt offshore drilling. GOO, local news-media, faculty members at the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) and other community members worked tirelessly to disseminate images and information about the oil spill and its effects. The Santa Barbara Spill thus became a nationwide spectacle and issue of grave concern.

Deeply troubling to many Americans were the reactions of officials at both Union Oil and the Federal government toward the spill. Hardy (2013) cites Union Oil President Fred L. Hartley who publicly stated, “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”, as just one example of the callous attitudes harbored by corporate executives and federal officials at the time toward environmental problems.

The disconnect between the reality of the environmental harms caused by the spill and the official stances taken by Union Oil and federal officials was evidenced in other ways. For example, Molotch (1973) notes that federal and corporate estimates of the total volume of oil leaking into the ocean were as much as ten times lower than estimates provided by independent, non-governmental sources. Officials seemed to consistently downplay the severity of harms to local wildlife by arguing, for instance, that reports of dead seal pups could be explained by the fact that the pups were not dead, but just sleeping (Molotch 1973). More generally, the official response to, and handling of, the Santa Barbara oil spill and its aftermath highlighted the complicity often existing between regulatory agencies and the industries they regulate.

Thus, the legacy of the Santa Barbara oil spill derives in part from 1) the spill’s environmental harms and the powerful influence the documentation and dissemination of these harms had on the public consciousness at the time, 2) the public’s frustration with the lack of existing environmental regulations and concerted regulatory enforcement, and 3) the public perception that federal and state government’s were “in bed” with big industries to the detriment of the public good and the environment.

In the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill, public outcry for greater environmental regulation did produce some important changes. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act at the end of 1969. The following year, 1970, marked the first ever Earth Day celebration, along with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also stemming directly, or in part, from the Santa Barbara oil spill were passage of the California Environmental Quality Act and formation by faculty at UCSB of an environmental studies program and an environmental defense center. The Santa Barbara Oil Spill therefore represents one of the watershed moments in U.S. environmental history and in the development of U.S. environmental activism and policy, occupying a place of great importance alongside publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Further Reading
1. Molotch, Harvey. 1973. “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America.” Pp. 297-323 in Sociological Readings in the Conflict Perspective, William J. Chambliss (ed.). Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing.

2. Hardy, Darren. 2013. “1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill.” Retrieved from (

3. Clarke, Keith C. Hemphill, Jeffrey J. 2002. “The Santa Barbara Oil Spill, A Retrospective.” Pp.157-162 in Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, Vol. 64, Darrick Danta (ed.). Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press. Also available online at (

See also:
BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill 2010
Earth Day Movement
National Environmental Policy Act 1969
Buffalo Creek Disaster

Reference: Santa Barbara Oil Spill

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