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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Does Anyone Remember the Oil Spill in Santa Barbara?

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Right-wing talk radio and television are abuzz with full-throated calls to drill off the coast of California. From Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity to Michael Medved, it seems that all of the anti-environment blowhards that contaminate our public airwaves are calling for the Congress to hand over the "Outer Continental Shelf" to ExxonMobil and the gang so the nation can drill its way out of the current energy crisis.

The Republican Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner (OH), tells us that with the sparkling new technologies available today the oil conglomerates can tap into the billions of barrels off shore without so much as scratching the cute little whiskers of an endangered sea otter.

Newt Gingrich has a web site that has gathered about 700,000 signatures (I bet none of them from California) demanding that the Congress open up the pristine marine sanctuaries on the Pacific Coast to aggressive oil drilling.

The Republican Right has produced opinion polls tailored to "confirm" the existence of a grassroots populist movement demanding more drilling, while the mightiest minds on the Right tell us that the oil markets would respond favorably because Congress would show investors that it was serious about increasing domestic production. Gas prices then would magically go down. The Republicans' tone on the issue (as with everything else) is shrill, hyper-partisan, and contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with them.

There is an insidious nature to the Rightwingers' propaganda about offshore oil drilling because they frame the issue in terms that seem commonsensical: "Drill more oil here at home and gas prices will go down"; "We have amazing technology today so environmental concerns are a thing of the past."

But every sentient being should understand that the United States, which has about 6 percent of the world's population and consumes about 25 percent of the world's oil production, cannot realistically drill its way out of the current energy crisis. Also, no technology can undo the damage caused by the industrial footprint needed to extract the amounts of oil that are being contemplated off some of the most pristine California coastline. There are earthquakes out there and no technology can prevent leakages into the ocean. And the tons of equipment necessary would turn the West Coast into a Louisiana-style polluted eyesore.

Which brings me to the January 29, 1969 Union Oil disaster off the Santa Barbara coast. Over a year before the first Earth Day the nation was alerted to the ecological dangers of offshore drilling when a drilling platform six miles off the coast spewed forth 200,000 gallons of crude oil over a period of eleven days. The crude bubbled up to the surface and created an 800 square mile oil slick. Thick black tar washed ashore and turned 35 miles of the region's beautiful beaches into a post-apocalyptic scene of industrial waste. Oil clogged the blowholes of dolphins, animals were poisoned, and the region's marine wildlife was devastated. Over 3,600 grebes, cormorants, and other seabirds died from contact with the oil. The breeding habitat was so contaminated that the populations of all of the bird species on that part of the coast plummeted.

The Union Oil platform was over 3 miles outside California's coastal zone so it did not have to comply with state environmental regulations. The federal regulations were more lax than California's and there were never enough inspectors to ensure such a spill could be prevented. Union Oil used shoddy equipment that was at the time believed to be "high-tech." The President of Union Oil, Fred L. Hartley, refused to call the spill a "disaster" because no human lives were lost, adding: "I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

President George W. Bush, who has already carved out a "legacy" for being the worst president for the environment in our nation's history, rescinded the executive order his father had signed imposing a moratorium on new offshore oil drilling. Bush and John McCain are now calling on Congress to do the same.

Members of California's Congressional delegation should be made to clearly understand that any vote in favor of new drilling off our coast would end their political careers. I think most of them already know this. The Republican noise machine will blame "environmentalists" out in Californian for blocking cheap gas at the pump for the residents of all those Red States. "Look how selfish those treehuggers are!" "How am I supposed to drive my Hummer to the NASCAR rally?" Better vote for John McCain.

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