Environmental Impacts

by Daniel Polk

Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, by Teresa Sabol Spezio (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019)

After catastrophe strikes, the subsequent social consequences are products not of nature but of culture. How societies rebuild or regroup is determined by power structures, ideologies, and ideas. Teresa Sabol Spezio explores this in her political history Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill.

Spezio, a historian, organizes the book, and her contribution to rethinking the politics (and US policies) of nature, around an oil spill that hit the California coast in 1969. Within four years of the event, the US environmental movement achieved major milestones: the first Earth Day (held in 1970) and the rapid passage of lasting legislation, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. How did this happen? Spezio adeptly examines how the oil spill was not so much a cause of but a context in which dramatic policy shifts became politically possible. Public opinion coalesced; policy makers seized the moment; the rest is history.        

An offshore blowout at a drilling platform gushed oil for 10 days. The spill occurred on federal tidelands, precluding state involvement. The spill took place in Santa Barbara, but its location is meaningful because it helped the event gain nationwide attention. Elsewhere in the United States, polluted neighborhoods were often urban, poor, and black. But Santa Barbara, Spezio explains, was mainly rich, Republican, and white, and represented a homogeneous, suburbanized conservativism. Moreover, local activists had long protested against the oil industry. Residents celebrated the region’s untouched and iconic natural beauty. After the spill, images of despoiled beaches and oil-drenched dead birds flooded across newspapers, magazines and television. Because it occurred in this part of the country, the “crisis of environment” appeared to threaten everyone. Its local character made it a national event.

Because of her story’s wide frame, the primary actors Spezio follows are federal policy makers whose persistent work shaped a new era of environmental law. She organizes the book chronologically—three sections about conditions before, during and after the spill—but each chapter is better characterized as thematic. She concentrates on three domains—local activism, federal policy-making and pollution control science—to trace the factors that shaped the development of federal environmental law in the early 1970s. Spezio convincingly argues that the spill critically contributed to the creation of the modern environmental regulatory regime.

In contrast to today, this upsurge of environmentalism was nonpartisan. The first Earth Day, celebrated by over twenty million people nationwide, was embraced by both liberals and conservatives. The small cast of liberal congressmen who championed environmental legislation had met indifference before the spill and overwhelming support afterward. These lawmakers took advantage of the spill and the headlines it generated to finally pass landmark environmental rules. Even President Richard Nixon (born and raised in California), although reluctant at times, helped steer this turn. Nixon declared (in terms still characteristic of environmental demands) that it was “now or never,” and his administration spearheaded the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Spezio also discusses Santa Barbara activists who lobbied politicians, but these residents remained in the backdrop as public figures took the national stage.

When considered alongside today’s environmental challenges, however, it is more instructive to keep in focus the low-level activists who populate the book’s background. Santa Barbara residents placed pressure on Congress, the President, and on local governments. Spezio’s book shows the pivotal role played by them and countless other local actors, but she could do more to flesh out the stories and strategies of these activists. Indeed, following this period of national law-making, local activism elsewhere would define the next stage of environmentalism, as urban, working-class, and minority communities began to organize around “environmental justice” in the 1980s and 90s. And now, the climate crisis has emerged as a central concern. This increasingly urgent concern, combined with neoliberal undermining of democratic institutions, makes local organizing as essential as ever. To her credit, Spezio demonstrates a vital link between responsive public officials and the mandates achieved by popular demands.

Spezio also offers a narrative about developing knowledge of pollution control technology, parallel though secondary to her principal political story. She explains that before the spill, scientists determined water quality by sensory methods: the sight of fish die-offs, concentrations of bacteria, or unusual tastes and odors. The oil company responsible for the spill commissioned a study that used traditional visual survey methods and it concluded that the spill produced no ecological harm. A public uproar ensued. This allowed members of the scientific community to step in and promote cutting-edge chemical pollution-detection methods. Congressional hearings showcased these methods, capable of quantifying contaminants that were once undetectable. This epistemic shift was a “revolution in environmental quality” (p. 204). Spezio continues: “No longer did communities have to experience fish kills to determine whether a stream or lake was contaminated.” Congress adopted these techniques, making possible the first nationwide water quality standards (the 1972 Clean Water Act). Meanwhile other legislation included a requirement for community consultation that became a key governance tool, and which mandated that environmental impact statements accompany federal projects.  

Most of this book is a political history of legislative achievements, although Spezio’s focus on water quality adds a valuable dimension that will be of interest to science and technology studies scholars. Perhaps the book’s most striking contribution is this exploration, in close detail, of how scientific methods and regulatory structures mutually evolved. The Clean Water Act arose from combined variables—a catalyzing event, sustained public pressure, dedicated legislators, vocal scientists—that translated novel scientific practices into standard regulations. This makes clear that the rise of modern US environmentalism was not a steady march of gradual reform. It was a sudden, stop-and-start rush of opportunities seized and activism mobilized, resulting in ambitious legislative transformations that have continued to shape how Americans relate to water and nature.

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