The Spills and the Subsequent Environmental Damage Will Continue without Change: A Call to Stop the Cycle

By Erica Donnelly-Greenan

The current oil spill off the coast of southern California is causing damage to the coastal, marine, and adjacent wetland ecosystems that humans and wildlife depend upon. This is yet another stark reminder of similar events of the recent and not-so recent past. This time, the oil came from a ruptured pipeline from the offshore oil production platform Elly in federal waters off of Huntington Beach – this event has also renewed calls to ban new offshore oil development off the United States’ west coast.

This new spill has increased the already urgent need to designate the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which would stretch from the southern boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Santa Rosa Creek in northern San Luis Obispo County, south to Point Conception. This designation has been in the works and a final approval is needed – time is of the essence.

Save Our Shores strongly supports both initiatives: 1) A ban on new federal offshore oil drilling, and 2) Final approval for Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

New offshore drilling in state waters, from the mean high tideline to 3 miles offshore in most regions, was banned by the California legislature in 1994.

March 24, 2021 was the 32nd anniversary of the grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez on a reef near Prince William Sound, Alaska, which ruptured its hull and sent more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into the water, precipitating a nationally televised environmental disaster. Much like the 1969 oil spill from an offshore oil production platform off Santa Barbara 20 years prior, the Exxon Valdez incident acquainted the television-viewing public of the danger of producing and transporting oil offshore.

It was the 1969 spill that led to stronger regulations governing the production of oil offshore and fueled public concern about the environment, thus driving the passage of federal legislation in the early 1970s (including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the bill that created the national marine sanctuary system). However, it was not until the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that led legislation to tighten rules on the transport of oil and helped to fuel the successful drive for the largest boundary for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

While the Exxon Valdez disaster was from a tanker and not a production facility, it certainly highlighted the danger of oil spills offshore. Four marine sanctuaries off of California including Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, Monterey Bay and Channel Islands; and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off Washington State protect 5 % of federal waters from offshore oil extraction.

Portions of the remaining federal waters on the West Coast (from 3 to 200 miles offshore) are still open to offshore oil development, unless the Biden Administration chooses to act by banning new oil production and creating a fifth marine sanctuary for California. This is an overdue call to stop the cycle or inevitably, the spills and the subsequent detrimental impacts will continue.

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Save Our Shores formed in 1978 as a grassroots movement to prevent offshore oil drilling in the Monterey Bay. In 1985, SOS advocated for the passage of 26 local ordinances to effectively prevent offshore oil drilling and in 1989 we co-founded and chaired the Conservation Working Group to advocate for the best ecological boundary for the Marine Sanctuary. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was officially established in 1992.