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San Luis Obispo County’s love-hate relationship with oil

Volunteer workers give "Wally" a rub-a-dub-dub in tub. It will be months before the grebe can go home again (if he lives). published Feb 15, 1969, 1969 They are working at the Child's Estate after the Union Oil disaster near Santa Barbara The oil spill went on for months in the Santa Barbara Channel. 75% of the oiled birds died.
Volunteer workers give "Wally" a rub-a-dub-dub in tub. It will be months before the grebe can go home again (if he lives). published Feb 15, 1969, 1969 They are working at the Child's Estate after the Union Oil disaster near Santa Barbara The oil spill went on for months in the Santa Barbara Channel. 75% of the oiled birds died. Telegram-Tribune

Relationship status: It’s complicated. San Luis Obispo County’s relationship with oil has had its ups and downs.

Union Oil was a pioneer corporate employer providing many head-of-household jobs and was a 20th century economic driver for construction. Other oil companies such as Texaco and Chevron have operated oil terminals out of Estero Bay. Oil wells dot Price Canyon, Guadalupe Dunes and other oil fields pump just across the county lines north, east and south.

In the 1950s, Union Oil built the refinery on the Nipomo Mesa now owned by Phillips 66 Co.

The relationship soured in 1969 with a major oil spill off coastal Santa Barbara.

Quoting Telegram-Tribune staff writer Gilbert Moore in an article from Feb. 15, 1969:

“It churned and bubbled to the surface through a sea floor fissure for 11 days, turning the channel into a vast oil slick. It coated miles of peerless beach with sludgy slime. It captured loons, sea scooters, grebes — hundreds of them — in a cocoon of death.”

Union Oil had been cutting corners using thinner pipe casing than standard. Apparently they got permission from the U.S. Geological Survey to go thinner than federal and California standards.

The spill generated heartbreaking images of dying, oil-soaked birds; 70 percent of the oiled birds died.

Union Oil President Fred L. Hartley offered this reaction: “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”

The spill galvanized the ecology movement, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created Dec. 2, 1970. Earth Day was founded in the sludgy wake of the event.

Union Oil had already had a flaming oil disaster in the county when lightning struck the San Luis Obispo Tank Farm in April 1926. They were also the cause of the oil spill that resulted in the demolition of Avila Beach’s business district.

Another chemical spill, larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, was under the Guadalupe Dunes and led to a massive restoration project.

One sign of the relationship cooling was the county’s passage of Measure A, which requires voter approval of offshore oil development in the county.

Recently, the San Luis Obispo County Supervisors voted to approve a statement opposing creation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The supervisors included language reaffirming their support of Measure A.

Reporter Tom Fulks wrote this Nov. 5, 1986, story after Measure A passed:

Voters not swayed by oil spending

Despite the most expensive political battle in the county’s history, the Measure A oil initiative was approved Tuesday by nearly 53 percent of the county’s voters.

After a drawn-out slugfest between Measure A opponents — financed by at least $426,000 ($932,873 in 2016 dollars) from oil companies — and supporters with a shoestring budget, county voters gave themselves the authority to have the final word on some oil issues.

Measure A requires voter approval for any permit issued by the Board of Supervisors allowing the construction or improvement of any onshore facility that would support offshore oil development.

Voters will be allowed to approve or reject the Board of Supervisors’ actions regarding onshore support facilities at regularly scheduled elections or at special elections.

Measure A won with 31,044 votes, or 52.9 percent of the total, compared to 27,542 votes against, or 47 percent. There were 3,221 blank ballots.

“The people have spoken,” said Robert Griffin, a San Luis Obispo city councilman and Measure A co-author.

“The leaders of the anti-Measure A movement were duped by the Los Angeles public relations firms hired by the oil industry,” he said.

“They misjudged the voters in this county by using an unnecessarily arrogant approach to the campaign, trying to tell people they weren’t smart enough to decide this issue. Well, they are smart and they’ve decided.”

Ted Waddell and Patrick Mullen, organizers of the Anti-Measure A group Citizens for Sensible Local Ordinances (and Energy Companies), hesitated to admit defeat early this morning and defended the campaign as “well received” by county voters.

“To quote Yogi Berra, ‘It isn’t over till it’s over,’ ” Waddell said. “We anticipated this to be close. We started with a handful of people and ended up with thousands who helped get this issue across to people.”

Mullen said he was “thankful” for the money pumped into the campaign by the oil industry, but admitted it wasn’t enough to carry a victory.

“That isn’t always what it takes,” Mullen said.

Some of that money was used by Citizens for San Luis Obispo to pay for a steady stream of campaign mailers that were delivered to county mailboxes in the last days of the campaign.

Employees of Sun Temporary Services of San Luis Obispo were hired this week to operate phone banks in a last-minute attempt to get out the anti-Measure A vote.

That tactic angered several county residents who thought the telephone pitches ere less than honest.

The telephone workers allegedly called registered Democrats and said the Democratic headquarters urged a vote for Rep. Leon Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, and against Measure A. Panetta has publicly endorsed Measure A.

Sandy Tillson of Atascadero said Tuesday she was hired by Citizens for San Luis Obispo to make the telephone pitches, but when people began to hang up on her, she tried to alter the wording, which did not go over well with her temporary employers.

Tillson said she was told to say it was the Democratic Party calling “from headquarters” and asked people to vote for Panetta and against Measure A.

Tillson, who was paid $4.50 an hour for her services, said during an interview that she decided to speak out about the telephone campaign because she was angry.

“I cannot sell something I do not believe in,” Tillson said. “I picked up my things and left (the phone bank) very angry. My conscience is still bothering me. I just think the whole thing stinks.”

Mullen defended the telephone tactics as “perfectly legal” and said Measure A supporters generated the protest as a way to gain news coverage.

It was the pro-Measure A people who were not honest, Mullen said, because they ran radio advertising spots that were not properly identified as being paid for by the pro-Measure A camp.

Mullen said his organization is considering filing complaints with elections authorities against the pro-Measure A campaign because of the radio spots.

Griffin said he was “disgusted” by the anti-Measure A campaign, calling it “one of the dirtiest little wars I’ve ever seen in this county.”

Griffin said “many prominent citizens of the community put their names and reputations into the hands of out-of-town public relations firms” that did not consider the political makeup of the county.

“If there is a lesson to be learned from this,” Griffin said, “it’s that issues like this — that have strong voter attraction — cannot be approached in a callous way.

“They were trying to make you say yes if you meant no and no if you meant yes. That kind of stuff catches up to you.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp.