Crude Habitat

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There are a lot of beautiful places in California – downtown Oakland, for example – but Santa Barbara is like stupid beautiful.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah, it’s like a comically picturesque California scene here.

Roman Mars:
A few months back we sent producer Emmett Fitzgerald down to Santa Barbara on a really taxing reporting assignment.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
You got all these beautiful sailboats, you’ve got pelicans. Just saw two dolphins. Sun’s beginning to set.

Roman Mars:
It’s a rough life.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Uh-oh, here comes a wave. That’s close.

Roman Mars:
Emmett really put himself in harm’s way for this story.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But if you look out at the ocean from this scenic spot, you’ll see something else. Something a little less conventionally attractive. Right along the horizon line, you’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, big offshore oil platforms. They look like buildings out there floating in the water or giant battleships or something. Not the prettiest. You can tell why people here don’t love them.

Roman Mars:
Those oil platforms off Santa Barbara are at the center of a complicated debate going on right now within the environmental community about the relationship between nature and human infrastructure. Although they have been a source of controversy since they first went in the water back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Roderick Nash:
I came to Santa Barbara in 1966.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Roderick Nash, an environmental historian who moved to Santa Barbara from New Hampshire, to take a job in the history department at UCSB and it didn’t take him long to fall in love with his new home.

Roderick Nash:
I began to realize what people had told me. They said, Santa Barbara is like the American Riviera. It’s kind of a paradise. It’s a land of endless summer.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But at the time he says, there was a sense that this coastal paradise and its lucrative tourist economy was under threat from these massive oil rigs going up all throughout the Santa Barbara Channel.

Roderick Nash:
There were cries from the people of Santa Barbara saying, not so fast, let’s think about the consequences of this. We look out at the channel. This is the million dollar view. This is what the economy and the culture of Santa Barbara is about, and now suddenly we’re putting offshore oil rigs out there and we’re not so sure that we’re protected from spills.

Roman Mars:
But at the time there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could do. The EPA didn’t exist yet. There were no major environmental regulations in place, and so the oil platforms went in.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And they operated without any major spills until January 28, 1969.

Bud Bottoms:
I was working on the fourth floor of the El Paseo building that overlooked the ocean.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Bud Bottoms, a local artist who actually passed away last year. This audio is from a video interview that Bottoms did a few years back where he described getting a phone call from a friend who had flown into Santa Barbara earlier that day.

Bud Bottoms:
He was flying over the channel this particular day, and he saw a big blow out. He said there’s oil coming from underneath this platform like crazy. The whole ocean out here is black and it’s boiling it up.

Roman Mars:
Union Oil, the owner of the platform in question had failed to build a large enough protective casing for one of its wells. And the oil which was under immense pressure, forced its way around the well and erupted through the ocean floor, 1000 gallons of crude were pouring into the ocean every hour.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Roderick Nash heard about the spill that same day, but he says it took a little while for the scale of the disaster to really set in.

Roderick Nash:
I can remember walking down to the beach – no change, no change – and then I walked down to the beach one day and it was a black tide, there was oil, and suddenly the postcard beaches of Santa Barbara were black.

Roman Mars:
Crude oil floats on top of water and so the spill was particularly deadly for seabirds that dive into the water to catch fish.

Roderick Nash:
You go in and your feathers are covered with oil and you can’t fly and you flap helplessly on the beach.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It was an apocalyptic scene, although Nash says the most uncanny thing may have been the sound.

Roderick Nash:
The waves were very quiet because they were oiled. They had sort of a mushy sound because what was really breaking was two, three inches of oil on top of the water.

Bud Bottoms:
We stood there and cried. I hear grown men and women sitting there cry, because the beach was half their life and we thought it was all over for us.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But as sad as the 1969 spill was, Bud Bottoms was mostly just furious.

Bud Bottoms:
I got so angry. I just screamed out, “We got to get oil out!”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
He recalls screaming, “Get oil out,” at work.

Bud Bottoms:
And my boss was in the next office and he said, “Hey, get oil out. GOO! Good name.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so goo spelled G-O-O! became name of a new environmental organization that Bottoms helped launch in Santa Barbara. And GOO!’s goal was simple, stop all drilling and eventually get those platforms out of there.

Bud Bottoms:
We said, what can we do? You know, to stop the oil drilling in our beautiful pristine ocean on Santa Barbara.

Roman Mars:
GOO! held rallies and marches. They organized a human blockade to prevent oil trucks from reaching the harbor and there were more creative forms of protest.

Bud Bottoms:
We would send off bottles of little bottles of oil that was collected out of our harbor to every government official there was. So they can see for themselves what we were dealing with.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The oil spill quickly became an international news story, in part because of the timing. This was the very beginning of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s landmark book, “Silent Spring”, had come out just a few years before, the Apollo 8 spacecraft was orbiting the moon for the first time, sending back photos of the earth, looking like a blue green marble in the empty desert of space. For the first time, people were beginning to understand that the planet was small and fragile and that humans were doing a great deal of damage. And so all those images of oil drenched seabirds dying on beautiful California beaches.

Roderick Nash:
They went around the world. People looked at these birds and they thought, this is Santa Barbara.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The spill was a galvanizing event for environmentalists. On the first anniversary, activists rallied in Santa Barbara and some of them went onto organize the first Earth Day.

Roderick Nash:
Saying, this is why we need it. This is why we need it in our state. Because of something like the Santa Barbara oil spill.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The oil spill inspired Roderick Nash to start one of the country’s first environmental studies programs at UC Santa Barbara.

Roman Mars:
It also fueled debates in Congress and helped rally support for some of the most important environmental bills in U.S. History. The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act was followed by the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, just to name a few.

Roderick Nash:
Increasingly as you look back at it, from now, 50 years, and you look back at it, you can really say, holy cow, there was a lot of change, and the Santa Barbara oil spill, had a lot to do with that change.

Roman Mars:
The spill catalyzed a national movement, but there was still the question of the platforms themselves. Local opposition put a stop to most new oil exploration off California, but the existing oil rigs have continued to operate for decades. Today, many of those old platforms are reaching the end of their productive lifetimes and based on their original lease agreements, they should be decommissioned and removed from the water.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Carla Frisk is on the board of GOO!. It’s still around, and she can’t wait for the oil companies to be gone.

Carla Frisk:
Get to the end of your lease and be done, and then get your equipment and go away.

Roman Mars:
Get oil out, if you will.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah, the name still says it all, really.

Carla Frisk:
Yeah, you don’t have any doubts about what the organization’s about, right off the bat.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Frisk wants the oil companies to return the Santa Barbara Channel to the way it was before the platforms went in the water, a pristine ocean environment without any giant artificial structures

Carla Frisk:
And when you go down there, that you would never know that they were there. I mean, that’s really what it should be. You know when you have come to the ocean, it should be the ocean.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
That simple goal, the one that members of GOO! had been fighting for since the 1960s, it would seem like its time has finally come, but there’s one little hitch.

Milton Love:
These platforms are the most productive habitats in the world ocean, anywhere in the world.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Milton Love.

Milton Love:
I’m a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Love is author of classic science books like, and this is really the title, “Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast” and also the sequel.

Milton Love:
Certainly “More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience”…

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It’s a 650 page tome, full of fish facts, historical anecdotes, and some of his original poetry. According to Love, it weighs 5.4 pounds.

Milton Love:
It’s actually a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And it feels cliche to say that a scientist just really loves the thing that they study, but it must be said. Milton Love, loves fish.

Milton Love:
I have two tattoos of fish and one is of a cow cod, which is a rockfish. But the other one is of a deep water angler fish.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Is it in a decent place? Can I see it?

Milton Love:
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, hold on a sec, I have to take my shirt off.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Without thinking twice, he pulls off his shirt to reveal a fading shoulder tattoo. It’s this big female angler fish with a tiny little male fish latched onto her side.

Milton Love:
So there is the female, and that little nubby thing, that’s the male there.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Love grew up fishing on the beaches and piers of Santa Monica. He studied biology at UCSB, and eventually ended up back at his alma mater where he started up his own research lab, the Love Lab. But in the lab’s early days he had a really hard time getting grants to fund his fish research.

Milton Love:
And in 1995, I was at a low point. There was no question. I had no funding.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But just when things were at their bleakest, Love got an unexpected phone call.

Milton Love:
I answered the phone, he says, “This is Lyman Thorstenson, I’m from the National Biological Survey.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Which was a government program in the ’90s that aim to catalog and describe ecosystems throughout the country.

Milton Love:
And I swear to God, this is what he said. He said, “If you had money for research, what would you do?”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Which is not how science usually works.

Milton Love:
Nobody. Nobody calls and says, “I have money.” It’s the other way around. It’s a very Dickens-ian kind of thing. It’s like you’re the little beggar boy. You come over and you go like, “Please, sir, could I have $100,000 sir, please?”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Love thought about how to answer this surprise question. And he landed on something that had been nagging him since he first came to Santa Barbara.

Roman Mars:
Back in his twenties, love used to collect fish for a local aquarium and one day he and his fishing partner took their little Boston Whaler out to the oil platforms and started fishing around them.

Milton Love:
There was like fish up the wazoo and we could have filled up the aquarium with all the fish we caught.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Ever since then, he had wondered what was going on down there.

Milton Love:
And so, here’s this dude like offering me money. And I said, “Well, I’m really interested in these oil platforms off here. They’re large structures, I’d like to know the role that they play as habitat for fishes.” And he said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so funding in hand, Milton Love got a team together, rented a small submarine and began to study the platforms.

Milton Love:
The first dive I made in the submersible, was at platform Hidalgo, which is located just barely into central California. Which sits in about 450 feet of water.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
He took the submersible all the way to the bottom where the pylons reached the seabed.

Milton Love:
I was like blown away. I didn’t actually know what to expect. And there was a lot of fish.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
In particular, schools of adult rockfish were swirling around the base of the platform. And as he started making his way up this structure, he saw a lot of smaller juvenile fish.

Milton Love:
And we’re talking hundreds of thousands of these young fish.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Then, the metal itself was covered with colorful invertebrates, sea stars, mussels, sponges, and these little crabs walking all over the struts.

Milton Love:
Yeah, I remember coming back on deck to the research vessel, on the hatch pops and everybody’s … all the lab is there and the crew, the boats there and they’re waiting for me to say something and I said, “Yeah, this was like an amazing place.”

Roman Mars:
That platform dive was the first of many that Milton Love and the other scientists at the Love Lab would do over the next 15 years.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Love remembers one dive in particular from this period, around a platform called Gilda. One of his colleagues went down first, and when she came back up.

Milton Love:
She said basically, “That was unbelievable.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The scientists always videotaped these dives to show people who didn’t believe them and so she played them the recording right there on the boat.

Milton Love:
She put it in there and we’re going like, “Oh my God!”, that’s the most fish we’ve ever seen around the platform.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Not every trip down was like that. All platforms are different, Love says. Some don’t have a lot of fish and it always varies year to year. But often Love found that these oil platforms were like little oases of marine life.

Roman Mars:
The ocean is a big empty place and animals tend to concentrate around stuff.

Milton Love:
The only reason they’re there is they like to hang out with stuff.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Many invertebrates need a physical object to latch onto and rockfish want to hide and nooks and crannies or just be around anything with a little structure to it.

Milton Love:
They don’t care what the structure is made out of, it can be a pipe, it can be a platform, it can be a tire, it can be a rock.

Roman Mars:
Oil platforms are particularly popular structures with the fishes because they have a lot of surface area and complexity and they extend hundreds of feet through the water column like a marine skyscraper. Rockfish live at different depths throughout their life cycle making the oil platform this incredible home for fish of all ages.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Younger fish tend to live higher up the platform and time after time, Love was finding lots of them.

Milton Love:
There were so many that I started thinking like, what does this mean, biologically?

Roman Mars:
Like, okay, so we’re seeing a lot of juvenile fish. But how important are these platforms really in terms of the overall ecosystem?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
To try and get to the bottom of that, Love and his team looked at one particular species of rockfish, the Boccaccio.

Milton Love:
Yeah, it’s got a big mouth. That’s what it means in Italian, Boccaccio means big mouth.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The Boccaccio are heavily fished around Santa Barbara and around this time the stock was so depleted that the government closed the fishery.

Roman Mars:
But when Love did a survey of seven different oil platforms.

Milton Love:
There’s all these baby Boccaccio, and I mean we’re talking a lot of them.

Roman Mars:
About 450,000.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
To put that number in context, Love called up a scientist at the National Marine Fishery Service, who was responsible for counting all the Boccaccio on the Pacific Coast. His name was Alex.

Milton Love:
So I said, “Alex, we estimated that there were 450,000 baby Boccaccio at a these seven platforms. Is that important?” Because you know, like maybe it’s not, I didn’t know. So he had a model that he used. So he plugged that in and he came back a couple of weeks later and he said, “Well, on an average year, that’s 20% of all the baby Boccaccio on the entire Pacific Coast, were at those seven platforms.”

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And babies are particularly important to rebuilding the overall population.

Milton Love:
So I’m going like “You know what?”, that seems like those platforms were important for rebuilding that particular species.

Roman Mars:
Still, as Love’s results were coming in, a lot of people were skeptical, like maybe the rigs were just luring fish away from natural habitats.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Love says that’s a totally valid concern and it does happen with a lot of artificial reefs, but after years of studying these oil platforms, he feels confident that at least for some species of fish, the platforms are giving the overall population a boost.

Milton Love:
The preponderance of evidence is that for 8 or 10 or maybe 12 species of rockfish, there are more of them in California because of all these platforms than would be here if the platforms were not here.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And some scientists would go even further. A few years ago, someone else tried to calculate just how biologically productive the platforms were. The most productive habitats are places like rain forests, coral reefs, but when the scientist ran the numbers.

Milton Love:
He found that these platforms are the most productive habitats in the world ocean, anywhere in the world.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Now we should take that with a grain of salt. There are tons of habitats that scientists haven’t studied in this way, but the point is.

Milton Love:
These are fully functioning reefs. They contain all the animals that you would expect to see on a myriad of natural reefs.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Which begs the question.

Milton Love:
Is it in the interests of the people of California to blow up a fully functioning reef and destroy it?

Roman Mars:
In 2010 the California Legislature decided it wasn’t, and they passed AB-2503, a bill known as a Rigs to Reefs, which allow the oil companies to leave an oil platform in place, if it could be shown to have a net benefit on the marine environment. The oil companies would still need to plug the wells and lop off the top of the platforms that boats could travel over it. But they would be allowed to leave some of the structure in place. So far, though, no one has made use of this bill and the future of California’s offshore platforms is still very much up in the air.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And a lot of environmentalists aren’t sold on the idea of turning rigs into reefs. They have concerns about liability and the potential for future leaks and the original lease agreements specified that the platforms would be fully removed when the oil ran out. There wasn’t a loophole that said they could stay if they turned it into beautiful fish habitat.

Carla Frisk:
To me, it’s breaking a promise.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
This is Carla Frisk again from GOO!.

Carla Frisk:
The promise was these would go away, and now they don’t want them to go away. To tell my community, don’t worry, we’re going to clean up our garbage after we’re gone and then say, well, we didn’t really mean that.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And even if you love fish, and I really do love fish. Her frustration is understandable. Environmental activists in Santa Barbara have had to deal with oil in their backyard for the last 50 years. In 2015, an oil pipeline a few miles north of Santa Barbara started leaking right into the ocean. It was a horrible reminder of the ’69 spill, and the dangers of living with oil infrastructure. And now, the oil companies are saying, hey, these giant structures in the ocean that caused you all these problems? Well, they’re actually good for the environment. Look at the research, they’re habitat.

Carla Frisk:
It’s not about the habitat.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Carla is not convinced that oil executives support Rigs to Reefs because of their concern for the rockfish.

Carla Frisk:
My feeling is that they’re motivated by saving money. I mean, it’ll save a whole lot of money by not pulling those out.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
The rigs off Santa Barbara are massive pieces of infrastructure, some of the largest oil platforms in the world. Fully removing them would be extremely difficult and avoiding those costs could save the oil companies millions of dollars. Under the 2010 Rigs to Reefs bill, those savings will be split with a state, but still a lot of environmental groups don’t love signing off on a policy that feels like a handout to the oil industry.

Roman Mars:
Especially because environmental groups are currently fighting new offshore oil development. The Trump administration has indicated that they want to issue new offshore oil and gas leases off California. California has resisted the plan, but environmental groups worry that if the costs of decommissioning go down and the oil companies can argue that these structures are actually good for wildlife, they could have an easier time building new oil platforms.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And new offshore oil drilling is the worst case scenario that all environmental groups want to avoid. Not just because of the risk of future spills, but because if we want to stop the worst impacts of climate change, we’re going to have to start leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Milton Love agrees that climate change is one of the biggest threats to the world’s oceans. And so, I asked him what he thinks about the fact that the oil industry probably likes his research.

Milton Love:
I have tended to avoid dealing with the oil industry to the extent I can, but obviously they read my papers, they like it, I guess. I mean, I’ve never had a CEO call me up and go like “This is great stuff, man. I loved your stuff and thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Credits

Correction

The episode originally misnamed Carla Frisk, but has since been corrected and updated.

Comments (11)

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  1. A random 13 year old

    2nd to last paragraph:Milton Love, for one, doesn’t we should be doing any new offshore drilling. Should be: doesn’t think we “should” be doing any new offshore drilling. Other then that grammatical error great article

  2. Charity Thomas Bird

    there seems to be a word missing in the 2nd to last paragraph on this article.

    the first sentence “Milton Love, for one, doesn’t we should be doing any new offshore drilling — he would much rather see us push on to entirely renewable energy sources”

    between { doesn’t } and {we} perhaps the word {think}

  3. Juan

    Hi I am a renewable energy engineer and for the most part work in onshore wind farms but have been involved in various offshore wind farms in Europe. Actually I was involved with the Block Island wind farm.

    In my years of experience, I never heard any discussion about considering reef habitat within our designs. It is however interesting consideration for the foundation manufactures and don’t see why adding roughness to the steel pilón would be a financial burden.

    Love the show, keep up the good work.

  4. John C Dubock

    I was on the beach at Faria/Mondos/Mary’s Point during the spill. A buddy of mine surfed some great waves…and the oil was random but so thick it took him a week to get clean. Today the beaches are packed, the effect of even a minor spill would be unreal, as you can’t clean it up. If anyone appreciates their environment, it’s the people in and around Santa Barbara and they know there are energy alternatives.

  5. Steve Wake

    “It just means that in a few instances off the Southern California coast there are oil platforms that have become a useful habitat for a few species of fish.” This is the only substantial conclusion about the impact of the platforms that can be made from the show – pretty modest. Why didn’t you ask Mr. (Dr.??) Love whether in these many years of studying this artificially induced habitat if he has studied the effect on larger food webs of (possibly) favoring a few species (possibly) to the detriment of other species, or more generally what has been the effect more broadly on the coastal community (community as defined in ecology) or even the biome? Has he done any peer-reviewed studies? Has 99% Invisible merely posed an interesting question and presented some implicitly biased answers by cherry-picking evidence? Please, if you are going to do science reporting be a bit more rigorous. Anyway, been enjoying the show for years.

  6. Bill Bolduc

    One frustrating part about this episode is that the solutions and the problems seem to be all or nothing. Could the tops of the platforms be removed leaving the underwater stilts that hold the platform up? That way the habitats underwater remain while clearing the view and getting rid of the worst parts of the platforms. What am I missing?

  7. William J Bolduc

    “Artifical Reefers” – perfect name for a Jimmy Buffett tribute band. ;)

  8. Alex

    I get sick of the environmental industry crying about these issues! Also these folks in Santa Barbara don’t mind using tremendous amounts of fuel for automobiles and industry and plastics. They just don’t want to see or deal with the ugliness of drilling despite their use of what comes from it!!! If you want not in my backyard then stop using the resources! Otherwise get over it!!! Don’t be a contradiction!!

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