Getty Images
Getty Images

A broken pipeline has spilled 100,000 gallons of oil in Santa Barbara, creating a 9-mile oil slick off the California coast. It's a major spill, and the event is generating a lot of media attention, not least because of the event's resonance with a 1969 oil spill near the city that many credit with helping touch off the modern environmental movement.

For the people in southern California affected by the spill, this is clearly a disaster. But it's worth keeping in mind the relative scale of the problem. Even though 100,000 gallons sounds like a lot, in the scheme of oil spills, it is not. The current spill, troubling as it might be, is several orders of magnitude smaller than the huge oil spills that have occurred over the years.


The point here is not to denigrate the experience of the people of Santa Barbara, but to note that even a small spill like the one in Santa Barbara can cause enormous trouble, and there are larger spills happening regularly across the country. We're only seeing and hearing about this one so much because it hit near a major media center.

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, there have been 44 oil spills since the 1969 Santa Barbara spill that dumped more than 400,000 gallons of oil into US waters. So, when you see pictures of Santa Barbara over the next week, keep this chart in mind, too.

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Though the number of oil spills has declined dramatically over the last several decades, there is no fossil fuel system in the world in which no spills will happen. It's like a car-driven transportation network: there will be crashes.

And the United States runs on fossil fuels. The vast majority of the energy the country uses still originates as a piece of coal, pool of oil, or pocket of natural gas.


It's not the best for the climate. It's not the best for the environment. But it is the state of play. And until that changes, we'll keep seeing oil spills like the one playing out off the coast of California. Lots of them.

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