Oil Drilling Was Blocked Under NEPA, Environmental Legislation From the 1970s

By Irem Ozturan

A federal judge canceled the sale of gas and oil drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico last month, ruling that the Interior Department had violated the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by failing to take climate change into account when it auctioned the leases late last year.

Under the court order, the Biden administration must assess the global effects of emissions that those drilling projects would produce, and not rely on an analysis by Trump-era environment officials that underestimated their impact.

“I’m convinced that the Biden administration allowed the sale to go forward knowing that it was going to be stopped by a judge,” Teresa Spezio, a fellow at Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, told Retro Report. “Because they were well aware that the Trump administration had not done the proper review under NEPA.”

The roots of NEPA, sometimes called the Magna Carta of federal environmental laws, go back to Jan. 29, 1969, when an oil well blew out off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. The oil spill that resulted was estimated at 22,000 to 220,000 gallons, making it the largest in U.S. waters at the time. The sludge that washed ashore killed thousands of birds, turned beaches black – and galvanized the public to demand stricter environmental rules.

“Without the Santa Barbara oil spill, NEPA wouldn’t have passed the way it has and it wouldn’t have been responding to disasters like the way it does,” Spezio said.

An image from RetroReport
MARCH 3, 1969 President Richard Nixon visited cleanup workers at Ledbetter Park in Santa Barbara, Calif., after an offshore oil spill. (Photo: National Archives)

In March 1969, then-President Richard Nixon visited Santa Barbara, walking its damaged beaches and talking to cleanup workers. Then, on Jan. 1, 1970, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. “The 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment,” he said in a statement. “It is literally now or never.”

In 1970, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, Earth Day was celebrated in the United States for the first time. Within the following decade, environmental protection laws passed by Congress included the Clean Air, Safe Drinking Water, Endangered Species and Compensation and Liability Acts.

“It’s kind of amazing how many acts passed in the four years after the Santa Barbara spill,” Spezio said. “Richard Nixon took the Santa Barbara spill seriously.”

The ruling last month blocking drilling leases, by Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was a major victory for environmental groups demanding that the Biden administration hold to campaign promises to move the country away from fossil fuels.

“This requires the bureau to go back to the drawing board and actually consider the climate costs before it offers these leases for sale, and that’s really significant,” said Brettny Hardy, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, one of several environmental groups that brought the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said the agency was reviewing the decision.

IREM OZTURAN, an intern at Retro Report, is a journalism and economics student at Northwestern. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

FOR CONTEXT The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill resulted in lasting environmental damage. Years later, the BP oil spill in 2010 revealed that many lessons of the Exxon Valdez had been forgotten.