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Blowout at Union Oil's Platform A

Oil Slick on the Surface of the Ocean Near Platform A
An Oil Slick on the Surface of the Ocean Near Platform A

The blowout at Union Oil's Platform A occurred in January 1969, and by all accounts, is considered to have been catastrophic in terms of the volume of oil spilled and resulting economic and environmental damage. One local scientist estimated 80,000 barrels of crude oil were released into the Santa Barbara Channel (one barrel contains 42 gallons of oil). The U.S. Coast Guard placed the amount at 100,000 barrels.

The Prelude

By 1947, advances in drilling technology enabled oil companies to drill wells from offshore platforms. In 1953, Congress enacted legislation authorizing Federal leasing of submerged Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) lands. In 1966 the first federal OCS lease sale was conducted and consisted of the sale of one lease, number 166. Phillips, Continental, and Cities Service oil companies purchased the lease and installed Platform Hogan in 1967, making it the first platform in federal waters offshore Santa Barbara County. The second federal OCS lease sale was conducted on February 6, 1968. Seventy-two Channel leases were offered for bidding. Union Oil of California (later Unocal) in partnership with Gulf, Mobil, and Texaco purchased lease number 241 in the Dos Cuadras field.

The Blowout

In September 1968, Union Oil placed Platform A on OCS lease 241. The platform was installed in 188 feet of water 5.8 miles from shore. By January 1969, four wells were drilled and work began on a fifth well. For this well, Union Oil requested the U.S. Geological Survey to waive various well casing requirements. Well casing prevents oil and gas from escaping the well bore and migrating into the surrounding geological formation. Donald Solanas of the U.S. Geological Survey approved the waiver. However;

'On wells as deep as A-21, federal regulations called for a standard minimum of 300 feet of conductor casing -- the first string of protective casing normally set beneath the ocean floor -- and a blowout-prevention device atop it. Similarly, these regulations called for approximately 870 feet of surface casing -- a secondary string set to greater depth and generally installed when exploratory operations suggest the presence of a high-pressure gas-zone. Yet Solanas -- exercising his legitimate statutory discretion -- had authorized Union to drill A-21 without installing any surface casing at all. Moreover, he had permitted Union to run its conductor casing down to only 238 feet beneath the ocean floor.'1

Drilling of the fifth well began on January 14th and continued through the morning of January 28th when drilling was stopped for logging (evaluation) of the well. At 10:45 a.m. the well blew out.

Oil and Gas Boils on the Surface of the Ocean Following the Blowout
Oil and Gas Boils on the Surface of the Ocean Following the Blowout

After several attempts, workers on the platform slowed the flow of oil and gas at the well head. Soon, however, oil and gas began boiling at the ocean's surface a few hundred feet from the platform.

'The oil had burst through its fragile geological formation, ripping five long gashes through the top of the ocean floor. At least 77,000 barrels escaped in the first 100 days of the spill.'2

The Response

Workers struggled to control the flow of oil from the well for nearly twelve days. Another well experienced a blowout on the platform on February 24th resulting in an additional oil spill. Oil and gas escaped through acres of fractured ocean floor long after the well was plugged. Efforts to contain and remove the oil were primitive, their effectiveness limited, and they caused additional impacts to the affected area.

Clean-Up Efforts Following the Blowout
Clean-Up Efforts Following the Blowout

Oil, pushed by currents in many directions, eventually covered hundreds of square miles of Santa Barbara Channel waters. Approximately forty miles of mainland coastline were impacted by the spill. Oil also found its way to the shores of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands and remained in some locations for months or years following the spill. It was buried under sand, only to resurface after storms, or it found its way to inaccessible crags in rocky areas where it could not be cleaned by humans or scoured by wave action.

Approximate Extent of Oil Contamination Through 2-05-69

The Aftermath

Following the blowout, Secretary of the Interior, Walter Hickel, ordered the oil companies to stop drilling on the OCS pending review and revision of federal drilling regulations. He also added a 34,000-acre buffer zone seaward of the existing 21,000-acre federal ecological preserve between Summerland and Coal Oil Point. Federal drilling activities were allowed to continue on the OCS in 1970, with stricter regulations. Future OCS oil and gas leasing, as well as leasing in State waters, would require a formalized environmental public review process under the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.

Environmental and economic losses resulting from the spill were difficult to estimate. The tourist industry suffered in 1969; however, tourism recovered in subsequent years. A class-action lawsuit awarded nearly $6.5 million to owners of beachfront homes, apartments, hotels, and motels. Commercial and recreational boat owners and nautical suppliers were awarded $1.3 million for property damage and loss of revenue. Commercial fishers lost access to some fisheries temporarily. Union Oil also settled a lawsuit files by the State of California, County of Santa Barbara, and the Cities of Santa Barbara and Carpinteria in the amount of $9.5 million for loss of property.2

Many mammals, birds, fish, and other sea life in the area were likely impacted by the spill; however, estimates of the degree of the impact vary. The California Department of Fish and Game reported that at 3,600 birds died. Ultimately, it appears that all species recovered after a few years.


1 Nash, A. E., Dean E. Mann and Phil G. Olsen, Oil Pollution and the Public Interest: A Study of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Berkeley, UC Institute of Governmental Studies, 1972 (excerpts from the internet at,
p. 2

2 Welsh, Nick, The Big Spill, Santa Barbara News Press (January 26, 1989) - (excerpt from the internet at, p. 5

3 Sollen, Robert, A Ocean of Oil, Juneau, Alaska: The Denali Press, 1998.

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