Newton on Spezio, 'Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill'

Teresa Sabol Spezio
Samm Newton

Teresa Sabol Spezio. Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill. History of the Urban Environment Series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 248 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-6532-9

Reviewed by Samm Newton (University of Wisconsin) Published on H-Environment (September, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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On Tuesday, January 28, 1969, six miles off the coast of California in a place called the Dos Cuadras oil field, thousands of barrels of crude oil exploded from nearly a half mile below the sandstone seabed. Union Oil’s blowout lasted for ten days and created an oil slick thirty-five miles long. In tandem with inclement weather, it not only had devastating marine impacts but was also a sight impossible for the privileged residents of Santa Barbara County to ignore. The media spectacle and protests that followed brought focused attention to an industry over which the federal government had little control. This contamination event changed how scientists understood and measured industrial pollution and “would cause reverberations from the beaches of Santa Barbara to the halls of Congress and into the White House” (p. 122). Teresa Sabol Spezio’s book, Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, is a history of environmental science and legislation in the United States that gives due attention to chemical pollution itself as an agent of change. The oil churning about in the Pacific Ocean instigated the novel scientific and technological methods still used today to measure and mitigate environmental contaminants as well as new environmental legislation in which those methods are deeply embedded. 

Sabol Spezio, an environmental engineer turned historian, took her love of, and expertise in, clean fresh water to marine territory. She explores the relationships between oil pollution and political changes in the 1970s and asks how the Santa Barbara oil spill became a watershed moment in the history of environmental and science policy in the US, especially in regard to the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA). To answer this question, Sabol Spezio analyzes how the oil spill influenced the CWA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She then turns to the changing science and technology that became essential to understanding marine oil pollution and how that contributed to detecting water pollution in fresh water systems. She argues that the US government’s reactions to the Santa Barbara oil spill improved their ability to address controlling, measuring, and regulating water contamination on a federal level. 

Her argument is broken into three sections. Part 1 describes environmental science and policy before 1969. Before the oil spill, no entity was officially in charge of managing the oceans. Federal waters were regulated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Geological Service (USGS) under the guidance of the very oil companies exploiting the resources located in those waters. Additionally, scientists used different protocols and technologies to measure oil pollution. Before 1969, water quality was measured by smell, taste, sight, and/or the presence of disease. The oil spill in California challenged that precedent, contending that measurement by the senses was inefficient. A flurry of new research methods and technologies, specifically gas chromatography, followed in an effort to estimate both oil in water and the dispersants used to combat oil pollution.

Part 2 of Slick Policy attends to the first ten days of the spill. It includes a gallery of archival images from the event as well, which convey the natural beauty that anti-oil organizations, such as Get Oil Out!, were fighting to preserve. For example, an image of the Summerland oil derricks shows how large and obtrusive these structures were against the California landscape. Images of oil-covered birds also emerged in mainstream media, and the author includes some of these, which created controversy between scientific narratives from Union Oil and that of the government experts. 

As Sabol Spezio argues, it took a salient crisis, like the debacle that was the oil spill, to make regulatory change possible. Several events in the 1960s and ’70s, such as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and the Cuyahoga River firecontributed to the salience of environmental degradation in the American attention cycle. Sabol Spezio adds to the literature by claiming that the Santa Barbara oil spill was not just one of many environmental crises but was the tipping point event that made the reform of US environmental regulation possible. 

Part 3 returns to environmental science and policy after 1969 to explore how the event became so crucial to US environmental policy. Most scientists, like the ones hired by Union Oil during the Santa Barbra oil spill, measured water contamination before 1969 in a sensory way and through biological surveys. However, with the Santa Barbara oil spill, and another spill located near the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute, Dr. Max Blumer showed that the most effective way of testing water quality and gauging pollution was through gas chromatography. The spill near Woods Hole gave him a place to test his methods, and the Santa Barbara spill gave him the opportunity to showcase their application for industry and government. Blumer’s methods ultimately became the standard for testing water quality and were used as a tool to pass comprehensive water pollution control law.

Throughout her writing, Sabol Spezio covers the history of US environmentalism in the 1970s, including Gaylord Nelson’s Earth Day, Richard Nixon walking on the beaches of Santa Barbara, the creation of the EPA, the Vietnam War, and most importantly for her argument, the passage of the NEPA and CWA. Because NEPA required public participation and environmental review, it affected how oil companies could work on the Outer Continental Shelf. This book focuses more on the implementation of that public participation piece of NEPA and less on the compulsory environmental review piece of that legislation.

Additionally, Sabol Spezio makes a claim about nationwide drilling reform and how the spill made space for public participation on environmental projects over a wider scale. Yet, by focusing on the aftermath in California singularly, she neglects the experiences of oil regulation in other states, for example, in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska. Her claim highlights the “not in my backyard” movement more than it does the progress and reform of offshore pollution and drilling governance. Drilling off the coast of California did decline during the decades post-oil spill, but it did not decline elsewhere. Her intervention, then, is successful in interpreting offshore governance in California specifically. Additionally, her attention to shifting technoscientific methodologies embedded in the CWA is successful as it demonstrates the connection between science, technology, and policy. 

Slick Policy shows how the release of oil, made visible by intense media and upper-middle-class protest, was also made political and led to regulatory reform. This approach allows her to build on the wealth of existing discourse on the topic and contributes an interesting perspective on how environmental science and policy were produced through interactions with an offshore oil pollution event. The book successfully communicates both the birth of meaningful environmental regulation and the importance of technological expertise in strong environmental governance; it would certainly be useful and engaging for broad audiences and in introductory US environmental history courses.

Citation: Samm Newton. Review of Spezio, Teresa Sabol, Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL:

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