Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Forty-five years ago today, Wally Hickel, just 6 days into his term as Secretary of the Interior, received the following notice:

Oil Spill Santa Barbara SITREP One:  29 January 1969. Advised that Union Oil Platform “A” experienced high pressure gas blowout delivering gas and mud from end of drill pipe. ..Preliminary report indicates 12 mile slick extending south and southeast of platform. ½ mile square heavy slick in vicinity of platform. Estimate 10,000 barrels spill.

Over the course of next three days, a steady stream of telegrams from the Coast Guard kept Hickel and his staff apprised of the latest developments with the oil spill. The telegrams, press releases, and internal correspondence in the Walter Hickel papers document Hickel’s and the Department of the Interior’s efforts to deal with the oil spill.

In order to avoid the prospect of additional blowouts, Hickel sought a halt to all other drilling operations off the Santa Barbara coast. At the time, Hickel was unsure if he had this authority as Secretary of the Interior.

After soliciting a favorable opinion from John N Mitchell, Attorney General of the United States, Hickel ordered Union Oil Company, Humble Oil & Refining Company, Mobil Oil Corporation, Phillips Petroleum Company, and Texaco to cease all drilling and production operations on their respective leases effective February 7, 1969.

Cease and DesistThis order remained in place until April 1, 1969. Each lease operation was reviewed by the Federal Government and permission to resume operations was granted on a case by case basis.

In an April 1969 letter to concerned constituents, Hickel detailed the actions taken by the Department of the Interior in response to the spill and the Department’s reasoning for allowing the resumption of drilling. Hickel expressed his sympathies for those affected by the spill and shared his view that any future drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf would be subject to new regulations designed to prevent future spills. He further pledged that any future leases in the Santa Barbara Channel would not be granted without public commentary following a thorough review period.

Further description of the Walter Hickel papers is underway. As we spot other interesting topics, we’ll be sharing.