Following a series of cascading mistakes and accidents, the Union Oil Company’s Platform A exploded on January 28, 1969. The blowout and a subsequent spill on February 12 released about 100,000 barrels of oil along the shores of Santa Barbara, California according to Coast Guard experts, the largest in California’s history.

Beaches of Santa Barbara Harbor, 1969 By Antandrus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.
The spill caused massive damage to the coastal areas of Santa Barbara County, but also contributed to increased environmental activism. The passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the first Earth Day all occurred in the wake of the oil spill. The event changed the most common grammatical usage of the word “spill”- associating it with “oil” in a way that hadn’t happened before:

Google Ngram can use a (*) wildcard character  to show common words adjacent to a term. In this example: “* spill.” The rise likely starts with other spills in the late 1960s like Torrey Canyona tanker which wrecked off the coast of Great Britain.

Harvey Molotch, a UC-Santa Barbara sociologist, described the increased awareness and protest in a famous essay “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America” that he penned in 1969. Years before the spill, the Santa Barbara community had protested against any oil and gas development in the ocean channel. They successfully advocated to create a marine sanctuary within state waters to prevent oil leasing there (at a significant financial hardship due to lost leasing revenue). Over the wishes of local residents, the United States Geological Service leased submerged lands outside of the 3 mile state water boundary to the Union Oil Company in 1968, leading to the spill in early 1969.

Molotch argued that the “accident” displayed the true nature of power dynamics between local and national, namely that the balance tipped to the Federal government and the oil lobby. He specifically noted the increase in grassroots activism on environmental issues as a result of the spill. The Santa Barbara News-Press was particularly vociferous in its opposition to offshore oil development and penned many editorials demanding changes in how the Union Oil Company and the Department of the Interior conducted operations.

Readers responded similarly, penning nearly 400 Letters to the Editor issuing demands about oil drilling, corporate welfare, and protection of the environment. Molotch divides the letters into two camps. Initially, writers would petition, protest, litigate and work within “the system” of power (Molotch, 132). Later, the letters became more radical and began using language that reflected their more ideological stance.

One artifact of the Letters to the Editor is the existence (in most cases) of addresses of the writer. In a sense, the letters exist in a space and time in which the author penned them. By using letters to the Editor of the News-Press transcribed by Darren Hardy, and letters to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that I transcribed, I intend to map the geography of protest about the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. After topic modeling the letters with Mallet, the most frequently used topic was symbolized with the following words:

oil channel drilling long companies pollution beaches disaster birds california water state federal make life area marine slick hickel

I took this topic to be a general description of the event and subsequently less useful in categorizing letters into ideological or non-ideological. The letters were about the Santa Barbara oil spill and this category was weighted most heavily by several orders of magnitude. Other categories were more useful in describing particular thematic approaches to the letters. The third most weighted topic mapped to Statist responses:

state lands drilling review commission development controls public channel white states house operations congress gas made time make offshore

This is notable for the functions of government and particular governmental bodies mentioned. Other topics also fit into this category including an “editorial” topic.

The second most frequent topic fit into the “ideological” category.I take this topic to have a local concern with pollution that was inherent to Santa Barbarans anger over polluting their local channel and coastline (and the resulting decline in tourism). The “spill effects” topic:

spill channel fish oil plants california whales found effect western condition damage university restaurant motel hotel mess states industry

Using CartoDB (which is essentially Google Maps on steroids), I mapped both the letters and how strong the ideological “spill effects” topic existed in each letter.

Expand the map to fullscreen for best viewing and be sure to zoom into the Santa Barbara area.


The offshore oil platforms existing in 1969 are shown in red (data from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management). I expected most of the opposition to come from those living near the sites of environmental harm such as coastal beaches. Letters from Ithaca, New York and southern Connecticut also had strong probabilities of the topic, which I didn’t expect. Furthermore, the letters don’t seem to follow a specific geographical pattern, though other patterns- class, demographics might create create the logic

One of the prime limiting factors with this project was the relatively few letters reviewed for topic modeling. I analyzed 37 letters, fourteen from the Santa Barbara News-Press, fourteen from the Los Angeles Times, and six from the New York Times, one from the Baltimore Sun and one from the Christian Science Monitor to get a regional and national papers’ perspectives. The number of letters created an interesting map, but not enough words to generate quality topics.

One of the criticisms of my project voiced during a class presentation was the lack of letters. This is certainly true and an area which I tried to remedy by broadening the scope of my search in both periodicals, time, and search terms. Surprisingly few papers were in the Proquest database for the post-war period. This is not to say that they’re not digitized, just that the library doesn’t have a subscription to view them.

In the future, I would try using natural Language Processing, more letters to the editor, and additional geographic information analysis. With more analysis, historical topics could be reviewed for what an authors location might contribute to their political writings. As this was a sampling of letters, gaps in perspective do remain and ideally a conservative paper would help flesh out the different perspectives that existed on offshore drilling nationally.

For more on the specific methodologies and processing of the documents, see my methodology page.

Additional analysis of the letters in Voyant:

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