Lessons Learned Five Years After Refugio Beach Oil Spill: Drilling Means Spilling - Oceana USA
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May 19, 2020

Lessons Learned Five Years After Refugio Beach Oil Spill: Drilling Means Spilling

On May 19, 2015, a pipeline located above Highway 101 ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara, CA. In total, approximately 120,000 gallons of oil were released along the Santa Barbara coastline, 50,000 of which entered the ocean. Five years later, we remember the impacts felt along a stretch of coastline spanning from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles County and one thing is clear: spills can and do happen at every stage of the drilling process. The oil flowing through the pipeline when it ruptured originated from nearby offshore oil drilling platforms, yet another example of the seemingly inevitable dangers when drilling for oil in the ocean.

The Refugio Beach Oil Spill had profound consequences for California’s coast. The spill epicenter is an incredibly diverse section of coastline located between two state marine protected areas, Naples State Marine Conservation Area and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Area. Approximately 1,500 acres of shoreline habitat and 2,200 acres of benthic subtidal and fish habitat were impacted. Oil coated hundreds of animals and resulted in numerous strandings and deaths. This includes an estimated 232 marine mammals that were injured or killed, along with an estimated 558 birds killed, including 319 brown pelicans. Furthermore, the affected area is a culturally important site significant to the Chumash people.

In addition to impacted ocean wildlife and vegetation, beaches were heavily oiled, and the region suffered both beach and fishery closures. In total, the spill resulted in about $3.9 million of lost recreational value from missed opportunities to camp, recreationally fish or otherwise enjoy the beauty the beaches have to offer.

An entire region, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, suffered economic and environmental damages following the Refugio Beach Oil Spill. While the pipeline ruptured onshore, the area impacted was the same area of ocean devastated by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill caused by a blowout on an offshore platform. Both spills underscore the incredible risks that come with offshore oil drilling, and the devastating impact that oil has on our ocean ecosystems, coastal economies and communities. They also highlight just how much is at risk if we continue to expand our offshore drilling footprint.

Five years later, I still remember visiting Refugio State Beach to help with the oil spill cleanup. I remember the intense and overwhelmingly noxious smell of oil, the beach closure signs and numerous vessels working hard to stop oil from further spreading in the ocean. These are scenes I hope to never relive.

In 2018, the California legislature passed a bill that was signed into law prohibiting new infrastructure from being built in state waters (0-3 miles) that would serve drilling operations in federal waters (3-200 miles). This action creates lofty barriers for oil companies, making it extremely cost prohibitive for them to expand offshore drilling efforts. Yet, President Trump’s proposal to expand offshore drilling to nearly all U.S. waters remains on the table. It’s time we learn from our mistakes – President Trump should halt all efforts to expand offshore drilling and protect our coast now and for future generations.