Proposed Offshore Oil Drilling Threat Brings New Attention to Tanker Spill Risks

An oil tanker berthed at the Phillips 66 marine terminal in Rodeo, CA. Photo: Gary Graham Hughes.
An oil tanker berthed at the Phillips 66 marine terminal in Rodeo, CA. Photo: Gary Graham Hughes.

As coastal communities along the length of California are organizing to stop a Trump administration proposal to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the coast of the state (read more on pages 7 and 12), the proposal has also reawakened concern about the dangers of industrial oil spills and accidents in marine environments. Though receiving less attention than current and proposed offshore oil drilling operations, marine deliveries by oil tanker remain a standard for the petro-chemical industry in California, and an ongoing threat. California sets records for foreign crude oil imports to refineries in the state, which also receives significant amounts of crude oil from the Alaskan Arctic.

The 1969 Santa Barbara Channel spill is often invoked as a historical reminder of the damage that can be done when fossil fuel infrastructure fails and massive amounts of unrefined crude is spilled into the surrounding environment.

Further catalizing the California environmental movement was another oil spill disaster just two years later. In January 1971, two oil tankers owned by Standard Oil (now Chevron) ran into each other in dense fog just outside of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ensuing spill wreaked havoc on beaches both inside and outside San Francisco Bay. This disaster accentuated the already existing public outrage about oil spills on California’s coast after the Santa Barbara accident.

More recently, the Cosco Busan freighter ran into the main structure of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a typically foggy day in 2007, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel, fouling beaches and wildlife throughout the area.

As public attention regarding the risk of oil spills increases, one oil tanker expansion project in particular warrants the attention of coastal protection advocates: Phillips 66 is currently pursuing permission to more than double oil tanker deliveries to their refinery in the community of Rodeo on San Pablo Bay, at the northern extent of San Francisco Bay. Such an increase in oil tanker traffic would also increase the risk of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and along the coast.

The response of California coastal communities to the threat of expanded offshore oil drilling
proposed by the Trump Administration is commendable. These same communities would be well-served to oppose the California oil industry’s plans to expand crude oil deliveries by tanker to refining facilities in the state, specifically the proposal by Phillips 66 to double oil tanker traffic to their SF Bay refinery.

Our failure to halt the fossil fuel industry’s expansion in California could result in unacceptable consequences.

Take action: Contact your state legislator (visit or to tell them that increased oil tanker deliveries to refineries in California are incompatible with California’s aspiration to be a global climate leader.

Gary Graham Hughes is Senior California Advocacy Campaigner for Friends of the Earth – US.


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