Why do we still have offshore oil wells? How do they work?

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Oil has long played a role in California’s identity and economy. And the Golden State made history in 1896 when oil extraction from the ocean began from piers near Santa Barbara. It would be decades longer before drilling from platforms began, according to the 1998 book “Listening to the Sea,” by Robert Jay Wilder.

Spills have also been part of the state’s history.

Chart shows the largest U.S. oil spills since 1969

1969: A major spill off Santa Barbara led to significant changes in policy. A Union Oil Co. well had a blowout and dumped almost 80,000 gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. It was the worst oil spill in American waters (until the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989).

In response, California lawmakers prohibited new offshore leases. The spill also partly inspired U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson to establish Earth Day.

1971: Just two years later, another oil spill occurred in the San Francisco Bay after two tankers collided, causing 800,000 gallons of oil to spill into the water.

1984: As president, Ronald Reagan sought to expand offshore oil drilling, but his efforts were blocked by California lawmakers in 1984 when they expanded the 1969 ban to include federal waters.

1990: The Orange County coast was hit by an oil spill in 1990 when the tanker American Trader ran its anchor over a pipeline, causing close to 417,000 gallons of oil to seep out and foul the coastline and kill wildlife.

1994: The state Legislature passed the California Coastal Sanctuary Act in 1994, which reinforced the ban on new offshore oil drilling in state waters originally passed in 1969.

2007: The San Francisco Bay was hit with another spill in 2007 when a cargo ship struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, causing 58,000 gallons of fuel to leak into the waters.

2015: A pipeline ruptured, causing 143,000 gallons of crude oil to taint the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara yet again.

2018: During Donald Trump’s presidency, attempts to reestablish offshore drilling leases off California failed.

2021: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who earlier this year introduced the West Coast Protection Act, said in a statement Monday that the recent spill “highlights why we must also take action to prevent future spills, including passing the West Coast Ocean Protection Act. Our bill would permanently ban oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.”

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