H-Environment recently published a review by Samm Newton of Teresa Sabol Spezio's Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (U. Pittsburgh Press, 2018). The Santa Barbara spill is often pointed to as one of the foundational moments of modern American environmentalism and environmental regulation, but Spezio seems to flesh out the picture.
Newton writes that Spezio
explores the relationships between oil pollution and political changes in the 1970s and asks how the Santa Barbara oil spill became a watershed moment in the history of environmental and science policy in the US, especially in regard to the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA). To answer this question, Sabol Spezio analyzes how the oil spill influenced the CWA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She then turns to the changing science and technology that became essential to understanding marine oil pollution and how that contributed to detecting water pollution in fresh water systems. She argues that the US government’s reactions to the Santa Barbara oil spill improved their ability to address controlling, measuring, and regulating water contamination on a federal level.
Her argument is broken into three sections. Part 1 describes environmental science and policy before 1969. Before the oil spill, no entity was officially in charge of managing the oceans. Federal waters were regulated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Geological Service (USGS) under the guidance of the very oil companies exploiting the resources located in those waters. Additionally, scientists used different protocols and technologies to measure oil pollution. Before 1969, water quality was measured by smell, taste, sight, and/or the presence of disease. The oil spill in California challenged that precedent, contending that measurement by the senses was inefficient. A flurry of new research methods and technologies, specifically gas chromatography, followed in an effort to estimate both oil in water and the dispersants used to combat oil pollution.
As Sabol Spezio argues, it took a salient crisis, like the debacle that was the oil spill, to make regulatory change possible. Several events in the 1960s and ’70s, such as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and the Cuyahoga River fire, contributed to the salience of environmental degradation in the American attention cycle. Sabol Spezio adds to the literature by claiming that the Santa Barbara oil spill was not just one of many environmental crises but was the tipping point event that made the reform of US environmental regulation possible.