Blowout at Union Oil's Platform A
An Oil Slick on the Surface of the Ocean Near Platform A
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.willjohnston.com/articles2000/evos/evos_plus.doc),
2 Welsh, Nick, The Big Spill, Santa Barbara News
Press (January 26, 1989) - (excerpt from the internet at http://www.es.ucsb.edu/general_info/about.htm#thebigspill),
3 Sollen, Robert, A Ocean of Oil, Juneau, Alaska:
The Denali Press, 1998.