Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An offshore oil well blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California triggered a massive oil spill that focused national attention on the problem of oil in the marine and coastal environments.

Summary of Event

In 1969, the Santa Barbara Channel became the site of one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history. An offshore oil-well blowout triggered a massive oil spill that focused national attention on oil pollution and its effects on the environment. Oil spills Ecological disasters [kw]Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline (Jan. 28, 1969) [kw]Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline, Offshore (Jan. 28, 1969) [kw]Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline, Offshore Oil Well (Jan. 28, 1969) [kw]Santa Barbara Coastline, Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets (Jan. 28, 1969) Oil spills Ecological disasters [g]North America;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] [g]United States;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] [c]Disasters;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] [c]Energy;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] [c]Natural resources;Jan. 28, 1969: Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline[10180] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Hartley, Fred L. Brown, George H. Straughan, Dale

The Santa Barbara Channel contained twelve offshore-drilling platforms by 1969. Eight were in state waters within 3 miles of shore, while four were in federal waters 3 to 12 miles from shore. Two of the platforms in federal waters were owned by the Union Oil Union Oil company. One of these, platform A, was located 5.5 miles offshore Santa Barbara, California.

On January 28, during the drilling of well A-21 on platform A, a blowout occurred as the crew withdrew pipe to replace a worn drill bit. Oil escaped for ten days at an estimated rate of 250,000 gallons per day. The flow was finally stopped on February 7 by pumping large amounts of heavy drilling mud into the well and topping the mud with a cement cap. Although this stopped oil escape from the well, oil continued to leak from the bottom at a rate of 8,000 gallons per day. The total volume of oil released during the first ten days was estimated at 2.3 million gallons. After one hundred days, the total amount of oil spilled reached an estimated 3.25 million gallons.

George H. Brown, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, first heard of the incident at platform A on the afternoon of January 28. Brown surveyed the spill site the following day and was assigned the task of responsible authority at the spill site. He quickly began the task of coordinating the spill response. His efforts were aided by the Union Oil company, (represented by its president, Fred L. Hartley), which assumed the costs of containment and cleanup.

On January 29, the day after the blowout, oil covered between 50 and 75 square miles of the Santa Barbara Channel. The oil had moved away from shore in a south-southeasterly direction. The slick covered 100 square miles by the second day, extending from the platform out to sea and back toward shore. On the third day, a five-to-ten-knot onshore wind began to move oil toward shore. By the end of the day, the leading edge of the slick reached land. The slick covered 200 square miles by day four, and strong winds continued to move the oil toward shore. Heavy concentrations of oil began making landfall by the seventh day. The oil landed at Santa Barbara and at points east and west. At Santa Barbara, the oil entered the harbor, where it coated water, seawalls, rocks, and boats. By day ten, some 30 to 40 miles of shore were covered with oil.

Attempts to contain the oil around platform A were delayed and, when finally attempted, were largely unsuccessful. By the fourth day, there were still no containment booms around platform A. When booms were finally assembled and deployed, they broke up easily in the moderately heavy seas of the channel.

Chemical dispersants were used around platform A in an attempt to break up the oil. The dispersants used—AraChem, Corexit, and Polycomplex A-11—were far less toxic than those applied after the Torrey Canyon spill off the coast of Great Britain in 1967. Dispersants were applied around the platform using boats and planes, but most observers concluded that dispersants had little effect on the large volume of oil being released into the channel.

As the oil moved toward shore, booms were placed across entrances to strategic locations, such as inlets, harbors, and marinas. These were successful in most cases, but booms across the entrance to the Santa Barbara harbor broke, allowing oil to enter the harbor. Work crews used vacuum pumps and straw to remove the oil. Straw was also used to remove oil from beaches. The large quantity of oil-soaked straw created a disposal problem. Some straw was sent to city dumps, but the majority was burned. Seawalls and rocky shores were cleaned using high-pressure spraying with either hot or cold water.

Biological surveys conducted immediately after the spill indicated injury or death along rocky shores and to birds. Along rocky shores, some intertidal organisms were covered and killed by oil, including barnacles, limpets, mussels, and surf grass. Birds were killed, especially diving birds such as grebes, loons, murres, and cormorants. Diving birds picked up oil on feathers as they dove through water in search of fish. Oil-coated feathers made it difficult for birds to fly and resulted in loss of body heat. These oil-related problems caused the deaths of an estimated six thousand to fifteen thousand birds.

Although surveys of the nearby Channel Islands found dead seals and sea lions covered with oil, there was no evidence to link their deaths to oil. Graphic photographs of oiled sea lion pups were published by David Snell in Life magazine. Evidence to link sea lion pup deaths to oil was provided by one investigator, a zoologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His survey of San Miguel Island indicated that about one-half of all 881 sea lion pups had been oiled, but that two-thirds of dead pups had been oiled.

Studies on the long-term effects of the oil spill were conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and by Dale Straughan, a biologist at the University of Southern California. The studies were in general agreement, finding that the oil spill had little effect on the long-term ecology of the Santa Barbara Channel.


From 1960 to 1970, the total volume of oil shipped by ocean-going tankers more than doubled, from 530 million metric tons to 1,220 million metric tons. By 1971, nearly ten thousand offshore wells had been drilled as the search for oil and gas extended into coastal waters. This rise in oil transport and offshore drilling increased the incidence of catastrophic oil spills in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. One of the first to receive international attention was the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill. This event was followed by the 1969 blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel. The Santa Barbara oil spill received national attention and became one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history. Only the 1976 Argo Merchant spill off Nantucket, the 1979 Ixtoc-I spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound matched the Santa Barbara spill in magnitude and national attention.

The Santa Barbara oil spill occurred at a time when the world was unprepared to deal with oil in the marine environment. The spill identified weaknesses in response and provided the incentive to better deal with such catastrophes. In the aftermath of the spill, improvements were made in the areas of blowout prevention, response planning, cleanup technology, and biological assessment.

Soon after the Santa Barbara oil spill, the administration of president Richard M. Nixon moved to strengthen government regulation of offshore drilling. With new regulations in place, the next seventeen hundred offshore wells were drilled without incident. Stronger well casings, higher-viscosity drilling muds, and frequent testing of blowout preventers reduced the risk of blowouts.

After the blowout, oil cleanup was delayed by the lack of an effective response plan. Planning is absolutely essential to ensure a quick response in the event of an oil spill. An effective response plan details the physical processes of an area to predict the fate and movement of oil and identifies sensitive areas for protection. The plan identifies available cleanup equipment and a team trained in its use. Such a response plan, absent at the time of the Santa Barbara oil spill, was subsequently deployed for the Santa Barbara Channel and other coastal areas of the United States.

Oil spill containment and cleanup technology was primitive in 1969. Booms deployed around platform A were largely unsuccessful. Straw used as a sorbent posed a variety of problems. It was bulky and difficult to handle, and it took up water in addition to oil. Research and development since the Santa Barbara oil spill has led to significant advances in containment and cleanup technology. Booms have been made to extend well above and below the surface of the water, making them much more effective in containing oil. Booms are available for a variety of current conditions, sea states, and locations. Sizes range from those large enough to contain oil at sea to those small enough to block oil entry to an inlet. Sorbents have been made of synthetic materials that are lightweight, easy to handle, and highly selective for oil. These synthetic materials can be fashioned into a variety of forms, including booms, pillows, pads, and sheets.

Two studies were initiated after the spill to determine its long-term effect on the channel’s ecology. The findings of these studies were questioned by several scientists who argued that impacts were impossible to determine, since two elements of damage assessment were missing: a good pre-spill baseline against which to compare post-spill data, and an analysis of the spilled oil’s chemical composition, movement through the ecosystem, and weathering over time. Oil-spill studies have since included these two elements of damage assessment. Baseline studies provide a biological characterization of an area prior to oil and gas development. In the event of an oil spill, post-spill conditions are compared to those of the pre-spill environment to assess damage.

The Santa Barbara oil spill also helped launch the environmental movement of the 1970’s. In the 1960’s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) informed the public of the dangers of pesticides; her book sparked a widespread concern for the environment. In this climate of concern, the Santa Barbara oil spill became a rallying point around which the public expressed its deep concern for the environment. It has been suggested that an active environmental movement was born out of the oil in the Santa Barbara Channel. This movement was evident in the 1980’s as new protests occurred against oil and gas leasing off the California coast, battles that continued in the courts into the early twenty-first century as pressures built to renew oil leases and initiate further exploration. Oil spills Ecological disasters

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Joanna. Oil Spills. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. A study of the environmental aspects of oil spills, with chapters on the history of oil spills; response, cleanup, and rehabilitation; and the effect of spills on wildlife, fish, birds, humans, and vegetation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Crying over Spilt Oil.” Nature 221 (February 15, 1969): 610-611. One of many news articles to appear within weeks of the spill. Provides a description of early events in response to the spill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Easton, Robert. Black Tide: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill and Its Consequences. New York: Delacorte Press, 1972. The best single source on the Santa Barbara oil spill and its political, social, and ecological consequences through 1972. A thorough analysis of the topic must include this source; missing, however, is discussion of later developments in oil-spill response planning, cleanup technology, and biological assessment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Growing Problem of Oil Spills: Reasons and Remedies.” U.S. News and World Report 70 (February 8, 1971): 52-54. Documents the increase in oil transport and offshore drilling to explain the increase in oil spills in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindstedt-Siva, June. “Oil Spill Response and Ecological Impacts: Fifteen Years Beyond Santa Barbara.” Marine Technology Society Journal 18 (1984): 43-50. Describes advances made since the Santa Barbara oil spill in the areas of oil-spill technology and response planning. Various spill cleanup methods are discussed in light of their potential ecological impacts. The development of spill response planning as a discipline is also discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Oil Spill Response Planning for Biologically Sensitive Areas.” In Proceedings of the 1977 Oil Spill Conference. Washington, D.C.: American Petroleum Institute, 1977. Describes an oil-spill response plan for the Santa Barbara Channel. Includes the identification of biologically sensitive areas and the selection of appropriate protection methods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pacific Seabird Group. Oil and California’s Seabirds Symposium Issue. McKinleyville, Calif.: Author, 2003. A brief report from a 2002 symposium in Santa Barbara that addresses the effects of oil and other pollutants on seabirds. Includes maps and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothman, Hal K. Saving the Planet: The American Response to the Environment in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. Surveys the history of environmentalism in the United States in the twentieth century. Includes chapters on the Santa Barbara oil spill as well as the Alaska pipeline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snell, David. “Iridescent Gift of Death.” Life 66 (June 13, 1969): 22-27. Photographs and a description of oiled sea lion pups on San Miguel Island. Representative of the type of article that helped spark an environmental fervor after the spill.

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