In 1969 a massive oil spill captured the attention of the U.S. population. The disaster raised the nation's consciousness of environmental issues. The 1969 Oil Spill on Santa Barbara beaches prompted environmental legislation which culminated with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The events of the 1969 Oil Spill were a primary impetus for the environmentalist movement.

The 1969 Oil Spill on Santa Barbara Beaches

According to Clark and Hemphill (2001), the 1969 oil spill on Santa Barbara Beaches began January 29th, 1969 (¶1). The Union Oil Company was drilling for oil approximately 6 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara (¶1). Oil workers on a platform had been pulling a drilling tube out of a well to replace a drill bit (¶1).

Wells (n.d.) explains that the "pressure differential created by removing the tube was not adequately compensated for by pumping mud back down into the 3,500 foot deep well" (¶3). Worker error contributed to the spill. As a result of the pressure differential, there was a blow out that actually cracked the ocean bottom (¶3). Approximately 3 million gallons of crude oil erupted into the ocean (¶1).

Wells (n.d.) details that it took 11 days to cap the leak with cement, and more leaks occurred subsequently (¶4). The ultimate result was that

On the surface of the ocean, an 800-mi2-long (about 1,278 km2) oil slick formed. Incoming tides carried the thick tar-like oil onto 35 mi (56 km) of scenic California beaches-from Rincon Point to Goleta. The spill also reached the off-shore islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel (Wells, n.d., ¶4).

A vast oil slick formed on the ocean.

The disaster was widely publicized and transmitted through television and media to the

American public. Images of black tar slicked beaches, dead sea life littering the shore, and pathetic dying sea birds filled the public eye. Wells (n.d.) reports that the kill included sea lions, dolphins, fish, most ocean life, and approximately 9,000 sea birds (¶5). Large numbers of volunteers worked to alleviate the damage, tending sea life and cleaning the filth. Detergent was dropped by airplane on the massive slick (¶6). Cleanup efforts took months to complete, and cost millions of dollars (¶6). The ultimate cost would extend to include long term environmental damage from chemicals released into the environment, loss of tourism dollars, and other costs ( ¶6).

According to Clark and Hemphill (2001), subsequent investigation found that because the rig was located outside the California three mile coastal zone, federal standards were in application rather than state standards (¶10). At the time, federal standards were more lax than state standards (¶10). Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey had given the company permission to operate the rig below both California and federal standards (¶9). If the standards had been enforced by the U.S. Geological Survey, the spill would not have taken place.

Subsequent Environmental Legislation Enacted

The 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill had a massive impact on the public mind. Environmental movements strengthened and environmental legislation began to be passed into law. Clark and Hemphill (2001) explain that in immediate response to the oil disaster an organization called Get Oil Out (GOO) was founded in Santa Barbara (¶12). GOO would gather 100,000 signatures for an off-shore oil drilling ban (¶12). Drilling was halted, and stronger legislation regarding offshore drilling was passed (¶12). Offshore drilling would remain banned in California for 16 years (Wells, n.d., ¶8).

Environmental legislation continued to gain strength. The California Environmental Quality

Act was passed in 1970 (South Coast Air Quality Management District, n.d., ¶1). The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 (Wells, n.d., ¶8). The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Coastal Commission were created, and the first environmental studies program was introduced at UCSB (Wells, n.d., ¶8). The 1969 oil spill on the beaches of Santa Barbara had a severe and lasting impact.


The environmental awareness of Americans was expanded by media exposure to the devastation of the 1969 oil spill. The oil spill was a result of lack of enforcement of government regulations. The response from the public was the enactment of environmental legislation and the creation of the EPA. The 1969 oil spill disaster was the impetus behind the environmental movement and the subsequent environmental legislation.

Reference List

Clarke, K., & Hemphill, J. (2001). 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. Retrieved 12/23/09 from

Getis, A., Getis, J., & Fellmann, J. D. (2009). Introduction to Geography (12th edition). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

South Coast Air Quality Management District. (n.d.). What is CEQA? Retrieved 12/23/09 from

Wells, K. R., (n.d.) Santa Barbara Oil Spill. Retrieved 12/23/09 from