Walter Hickel’s death comes at a time when the nation is focused on the causes and consequences of offshore oil spills. As the newly-minted Secretary of the Interior —literally newly-minted, having only been confirmed six days earlier— Wally Hickel had to deal with one of the worst such disasters.
On the afternoon of 29 January 1969, a Union Oil platform six miles off the Santa Barbara coast suffered a blowout. Over the next eleven days, workers struggled to cap the rupture while hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spread into an 800 square mile slick that killed wildlife and tarred beaches along 35 miles of pristine coast.
The Hickel Senate confirmation hearings at been bitterly controversial; they set new levels of political acrimony that, finally, even embarrassed some of the interlocutors. When the vote was finally taken after RN’s inauguration —making Hickel the last confirmed Cabinet member— the new President called and suggested that the new Secretary relax for a weekend at Camp David.
In a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation in 2003 with Charles Wilkinson and Patricia Limerick —co-founders of the Center of the American West— Wally Hickel recalled those events:
So I was confirmed and the president called and said, “Wally, go to Camp David. You’ve been through a terrible thing.” So I went up to Camp David, I left my chief of staff in Washington. I was up there one day and he called me. He said, “Mr. Secretary, they’ve had a terrible oil spill down in Santa Barbara.” He said, “It’s really bad.” And I said, “Well, get me a plane, let’s get out there.” And I hadn’t even been in my office yet. I got down there and we flew out to California and the Coast Guard met me and God, the people. It was rough.
They flew me out to see that. There’s pictures of that. I saw this tremendous flood of oil. And the people were saying, who was in office, and they were saying, “Take that Union Oil thing. Do this. Do that.” I was at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara that night. It was 1:30 in the morning. Fred Hartley was there, Union Oil. I didn’t know what authority he had. It didn’t make any difference. I said, “Fred, I’m going to shut you down.” And he said, “Mr. Secretary, you don’t have the authority to shut me down.” That stopped me for about a second and a half. I walked over and looked him right in the eye and said, “Fred, I just gave myself the authority.”
I walked out of there. I got on the phone and called the attorney general’s office and got the answering service. It was very early in the morning there in Washington, about 5:30 or so. I said, “You find me a way that I can shut them down, I just did that.”
I got on a plane and went back to Washington and got back there about ten o’clock the next morning. The Attorney General called me and said, “Mr. Secretary, we think we have something that will really please you. We found a regulation that was put in in 1834 that says that the Secretary of Interior is responsible that our natural resources not be wasted.” I held on that and won the case.
The problem with that was I got the regulations sent to me the first day down there in their office and the previous administration had given them [Union Oil] the right to drill offshore, and I didn’t mind that. But the regulations they used were the same as on land. So in reality, Union Oil didn’t break any regulations.
So I go back out to Santa Barbara and it was really wild. We had a meeting in a convention hall; there were two to three hundred people. They were saying, “Get Union Oil. Do this.” I said, “Wait a minute. They didn’t break any laws. We didn’t have the right regulations.” And they calmed down. I said, “That is not Union’s oil. It belongs to us. It’s the commons.”
I closed them down and we had hearings later. But those hearings were tough. I had no animosity. I sat there. God must have caused that spill in Santa Barbara because it brought the commons in to me.
Alaska was the commons. I had had that battle since 1951 when I took it to Washington. It started the environmentalist thinking. It started that thinking and it became a busy two years. But that was part of the hearing. Long story, but I don’t know how to make it shorter.