Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Santa Barbara Oil Spill

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. 


Throughout her writing, Sabol Spezio covers the history of US environmentalism in the 1970s, including Gaylord Nelson’s Earth Day, Richard Nixon walking on the beaches of Santa Barbara, the creation of the EPA, the Vietnam War, and most importantly for her argument, the passage of the NEPA and CWA. Because NEPA required public participation and environmental review, it affected how oil companies could work on the Outer Continental Shelf. This book focuses more on the implementation of that public participation piece of NEPA and less on the compulsory environmental review piece of that legislation.

Additionally, Sabol Spezio makes a claim about nationwide drilling reform and how the spill made space for public participation on environmental projects over a wider scale. Yet, by focusing on the aftermath in California singularly, she neglects the experiences of oil regulation in other states, for example, in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska. Her claim highlights the “not in my backyard” movement more than it does the progress and reform of offshore pollution and drilling governance. Drilling off the coast of California did decline during the decades post-oil spill, but it did not decline elsewhere. Her intervention, then, is successful in interpreting offshore governance in California specifically. Additionally, her attention to shifting technoscientific methodologies embedded in the CWA is successful as it demonstrates the connection between science, technology, and policy. 

Slick Policy shows how the release of oil, made visible by intense media and upper-middle-class protest, was also made political and led to regulatory reform. This approach allows her to build on the wealth of existing discourse on the topic and contributes an interesting perspective on how environmental science and policy were produced through interactions with an offshore oil pollution event. The book successfully communicates both the birth of meaningful environmental regulation and the importance of technological expertise in strong environmental governance; it would certainly be useful and engaging for broad audiences and in introductory US environmental history courses.

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