CRF Blog

‘The Ocean Is Boiling’

by Bill Hayes

In ‘The Ocean Is Boiling,’ Pacific Standard gives an oral history of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, which helped spur the modern environmental movement.

On the morning of January 29th, 1969, Santa Barbara News-Press reporter Bob Sollen received a call from an anonymous source. When he answered, the voice at the other end of the line rang out clear and urgent: “The ocean is boiling.”

For nearly 24 hours, gas and thick black oil had been bubbling to the water’s surface, and, with each lapping wave, the sludge inched closer to the California coastline. The day before, the workers on an offshore oil rig called Platform A were removing the drill pipe from a freshly bored well when gas and drilling mud erupted onto the platform. Though the crew managed to stopper the top of the well, the highly pressurized gas and oil continued leaking into the water through faults and fractures in the upper layer of the ocean floor.

Platform A was owned and operated by Union Oil, a petroleum company headquartered in nearby El Segundo, California. With no contingency plan and no federal regulations in place, it took Union months to contain the blowout. In all, three million gallons of crude oil spilled out into the Pacific, unfurling across more than 800 square miles of ocean, coating 35 miles of beach, and killing more than 3,600 seabirds and countless marine mammals and fish in the process.

Santa Barbarans of all ages mobilized against the profound degradation of their otherwise-pristine seaside city, long known as “The American Riviera.” Demonstrations took many forms: There were the dozens of local protests against Union, which saw residents lashing out at ecological injustice; there were grassroots factions like Get Oil Out!, which distributed pamphlets and bumper stickers and once famously dumped a bucket of oil onto the desk of a Union Oil executive; and there was the lawsuit against Union, filed jointly by the city, county, and state.

The blowout — then the largest in United States history — drew global attention, too, as images of oil-coated marine life circulated in news reports around the world. That reporting got people thinking about how to balance their desires for economic progress (and cheap energy) with the emerging idea that humans have a moral obligation to protect the environment. [more]