When You Drill, You Spill

Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand from the shoreline at Refugio State Beach, nor
Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand from the shoreline at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. A broken onshore pipeline spewed oil down a storm drain and into the ocean for several hours Tuesday before it was shut off, creating a slick some 4 miles long about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant)

While the damage from the oil pipeline rupture on the California coastline is still unfolding, already its toll is daunting. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency in Santa Barbara County. An estimated 105,000 gallons spilled from the burst pipeline in all, about a fifth of which made it into the sea. An oil slick 9 miles long has marred the state's natural coastline. Refugio Beach, a popular state park and campground that had been booked solid for the holiday weekend, is now closed indefinitely. Scientists have begun the grim task of assessing the impact on wildlife, counting up dead sea turtles and oil-soaked birds.

The Santa Barbara County spill, one of the largest in California history, reiterates what we already know: We can't extract oil and transport it without putting our beaches, wildlife, and coastal communities at risk. The sad fact is, when you drill, you spill.

Californians learned this lesson early on, the hard way. The infamous Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 spewed an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an oil slick 35 miles long and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals. The tragedy spurred outraged citizens and conservationists to action, launching the modern environmental movement.

But from coast to coast, it seems we are still fighting the same fight we fought more than 45 years ago. Oil companies and elected officials pledge to protect our coastline with more safety measures, yet promote exposing more of our prized beaches to the risks of oil and gas extraction.

While California has long since banned new drilling off its coast, Wednesday's spill shows how existing oil and gas infrastructure still poses threats onshore and off. Meanwhile, drilling rigs in place before the 1969 blowout are pursuing new damaging ways to extract oil and gas, including slant drilling and offshore fracking.

In the Arctic Ocean, the Obama administration has already granted Shell conditional permission to drill. Harsh conditions in this fragile sea would make a spill nearly impossible to clean up, and threaten ice seals, beluga whales, and a fifth of the world's polar bear population.

And on the southern Atlantic Coast, the president's Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management has proposed allowing oil and gas rigs as soon as 2017, putting at risk the shore where families and friends go to swim, ride the waves, collect seashells, and relax. From Assateague Island in Virginia where wild ponies roam, to the Outer Banks, to pristine barrier islands running all the way to the tip of Florida, these beaches are visited each year in the millions. Just like in California, a burst pipeline on the Atlantic could ruin the coastline for beachgoers and businesses and damage precious marine life.

This Memorial Day weekend, as we kick off the start to beach season, we urge thorough cleanup of Refugio Beach; we ask the oil company who damaged it to be held accountable; and we work for the next beach to be saved. Join us as we urge President Obama to drop his plans to expose more of our beaches and oceans to the dangers of dirty drilling, and to double down on clean, renewable energy instead.