For the last three months, the nation has been consumed with the consequences of offshore oil spills. The BP Gulf of Mexico spill has yet to end; on April 20, a deep-sea oil rig exploded and killed eleven workers, causing millions of gallons of oil to spew into the ocean. This unfortunate disaster brings to mind the similar occurrences of January 1969, wherein a deep-sea oil rig six miles off the coast of Summerland, Santa Barbara, California suffered a blowout. But instead of Barack Obama, Richard Nixon was the Commander in Chief.
For eleven days, struggling oil workers attempted to cap the busted pipe while over 200,000 gallons of crude oil fanned-out into an 800 square mile slick, at the rate over 1,000 gallons per hour. The thick tar began seeping onto a 50-mile wide stretch of California’s sunny beaches. Efforts to cap the pipe were led by Union Oil, the company that owned the rig. Unsuccessful at first, the pipe was eventually sealed, though after successfully capping the leak, a smaller, residual leak sprung up and went uncapped for months. Union Oil’s V-shaped strainer took care of the clean up, though those efforts were hampered by harsh swells.

RN had been in office for only a bit more than a week at the time of the blowout on January 28. He ordered his new science advisor, Dr. Lee A. DuBridge, to assemble a team of engineers and scientists to investigate the Santa Barbara spill. The late Walter Hickel, the President’s Interior Secretary, switched into full gear issuing stricter offshore drilling regulations and requiring that drillers be liable for polluting marine life.

The President visited one of the Santa Barbara beaches infested with oil, and commented to reporters, “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people. What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”

While the oceanography and marine life paid a heavy price, the 1969 oil spill is credited with igniting the modern-day environmental movement, and placing a stronger emphasis on the harmful effects of pollution. RN made the Seventies the “Decade of the Environment” by instituting a series of laws and regulations aimed at protecting and conserving the environment. Such acts included the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.