The Riggs Report: Earth Day’s California origins
1969 Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized environmental movement
President Obama marked the occasion of Earth Day this week with a visit to the Florida Everglades and a speech about the environmental and economic consequences of climate change. Among those consequences, he warned, are rising seawater levels which threaten fresh water supplies and the prosperity of the state’s lucrative tourism business.
The Earth Day address marks the White House’s renewed efforts to draw public attention to the impacts on jobs, property values, and health. It’s also a proactive move that acknowledges a political reality; opposition to the President’s policies from the GOP-led Congress.
The president’s Earth Day focus on climate change and the effects on water supply were echoed by Governor Jerry Brown, who issued his own proclamation terming California’s drought as “an example of the kind of human and environmental catastrophe that will increase in frequency if we do not reverse the trend of climate change caused by human activity.”
Brown went further than the president, repeating the call he made in his January inaugural address to cut the use of petroleum-based fuel in cars and trucks by 50 percent by 2030.
There are lots of question about how to do that, not the least of which come from the auto industry. But Brown’s focus on carbon pollution takes us back to where it all began.
Earth Day has its origin in an enormous environmental tragedy that unfolded in late January 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara. A Union Oil platform experienced a blowout on January 28th of that year.
Over the next 10 days, before it was plugged, the blowout leaked an estimated 80,000 to 10,000 barrels of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, fouling area beaches and killing thousands of birds, as well as fish, seals, and other marine life. The disaster, and the required cleanup, were so extensive that President Nixon toured the spill zone.
State officials halted new leases in their jurisdiction, extending three miles offshore, although drilling in federal waters has continued. During the years I worked in Santa Barbara as a reporter, there was well-developed animosity and activism toward efforts to expand oil production in the Channel.
Long before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Santa Barbara’s blowout was the benchmark cautionary tale. Santa Barbara’s tragedy is often described as the source of the modern-day environmental movement. It led to an activist political campaign for greater environmental protections, including passage of measures like the Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. That, in turn, led to creation of Earth Day.
Former California Republican Congressman Pete Mc Closkey, who now lives in rural Yolo County, was instrumental in that effort and served as co-chair of the first Earth Day 45 years ago.