On the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1969,
there was a tectonic shift in the world's attitude toward industry
in general, and the oil industry in particular.
For several years previous, there had been a growing
political awareness of the need to clean America's polluted environment.
Coal burning had been restricted in New York City in 1966, and a
clean air bill was passed in 1967.
But on that fateful January day, an already antagonistic
environmental movement reached a hostile critical mass.
It was the day of the oil spill in Santa Barbara
A Union Oil Co. platform six miles off the coast
of Summerland, Calif., was preparing to pull 3,500 feet of pipe
to replace a drill bit when a gas kick occurred. An initial attempt
to cap the well was successful. But the resulting pressure buildup
in the formation created five surface ruptures in an unexpected
east-west fault on the ocean floor, releasing about 4,500 barrels
of oil into the channel.
For 11 days oil workers struggled to depressurize
the ruptured formation while oil bubbled to the surface and spread
into an 800-square-mile slick. Incoming tides brought thick tar
to pristine beaches over 35 miles of prime coastline.
It was 11 days of hard news as the world saw pictures
of oily birds being treated at three emergency treatment centers
and baskets of dead ones being carted before television cameras.
Fred L. Hartley, president of Union, held a news
conference during the course of the clean-up, and in answering a
question 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," he continued, "for
the loss of a few birds."
Those comments inflamed the public — and the comment
took on a life of its own. It became "common knowledge" that he
literally had said, "What's the big deal about a few dead birds?"
This was despite the comments being filmed for and available on
days after the spill, Get the Oil Out (GOO) was founded in Santa
Barbara, with organizers calling for a boycott on gas stations associated
with Union, and urging consumers to burn credit cards and cut back
on driving. Volunteers gathered over 100,000 signatures on petitions
to ban all offshore oil drilling.
The following spring, thousands gathered in protest
of the drilling. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson came up with the
idea that "if so many students across the country could mobilize
against the Vietnam War, why not organize a national teach-in about
the environment?" A national coordinator was hired, and on April
22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held, with an estimated 20 million
people worldwide holding teach-ins and planting trees and generally
agreeing that oil companies are polluters.
In response, the Environmental Protection Agency
was established and a number of environmental statutes were ushered
into law. A new era had begun.
As a postscript, an environmental group estimated
3,686 birds died because of contact with oil. Federal and state
officials said there was no evidence of any marine mammal deaths
due to the oil pollution.