Washington - When a Union Oil Co. well 6 miles off the California coast blew out in January 1969, an estimated 80,000 barrels of crude spewed into the Santa Barbara Channel - fouling beaches and marring the offshore industry's reputation.
With the nation now debating whether to open more areas offshore to oil and gas drilling, the oil industry can rightly claim it has avoided a repeat of that catastrophe, even as offshore activity has ballooned.
But offshore operators continue to spill thousands of barrels of oil, fuel and chemicals into federal waters each year, government records show.
"This is not a zero-risk proposition," said John Rogers Smith, an associate professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University.
Offshore operators have had 40 spills greater than 1,000 barrels since 1964, including 13 in the last 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which oversees exploration and production in federal waters.
Despite the industry's technological improvements and safety planning, offshore operators have struggled to cope with the hurricanes that blow through the Gulf of Mexico. Seven of the 13 recent larger spills were hurricane related.
Last week, President Bush rescinded an executive order first put in place by his father, former President George H.W. Bush, barring oil and gas drilling in much of the federal waters. The president challenged lawmakers to lift a congressional moratorium on drilling in much of what's known as the Outer Continental Shelf.
"Advances in technology have made it possible to conduct oil exploration ... that is out of sight, protects coral reefs and habitats, and protects against oil spills," Bush declared.
Drilling opponents such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have raised the specter of another disaster like Santa Barbara, which fouled beaches and killed thousands of dolphins, seals, birds and other wildlife.
"The technology of the drilling industry may have improved, but offshore drilling is a dirty business, and it still leads to oil spills due to failed equipment, aberrant weather or human error on a frequent basis," Feinstein said.
Santa Barbara wasn't even the biggest offshore accident. That dubious distinction goes to what was then Humble Oil, which spilled nearly 161,000 barrels of crude off Louisiana in 1967 when an anchor damaged a submerged pipeline.
No spill nearly as large as those has occurred from offshore oil and gas activity in federal waters since 1970, Minerals Management Service records show.
There have been huge tanker accidents, most notably the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. And Texans may remember the June 1979 blowout of a well in Mexico's Bay of Campeche, which spewed more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and coated Texas and Mexican beaches. The rig involved was owned by Sedco, a drilling company based in Dallas.
Charlie Williams, Shell Oil Co.'s chief scientist of well engineering and production technology, said technological advances in the last 30 years focus on blowout prevention, and the chief tools are 3-D seismic imaging and well-control techniques.
The Santa Barbara blowout originated in a well drilled in what engineers call a "shallow hazard" area - one with pockets of natural gas, high-pressure water or faults just below the seafloor, Williams said.
Williams said seismic imaging can detect such areas so companies can avoid them or take special precautions if a reservoir promises enough bounty to justify drilling.
But Richard Charter with the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund assails what he calls the industry's "big lie technique" to convince the public that offshore activity no longer causes environmental damage.
"The idea that drilling doesn't cause spills anymore is just a falsehood," said Charter, a longtime critic of the offshore industry.
From 1998 through 2007, offshore producers released an average of 6,555 barrels of oil a year, according to the Minerals Management Service, which tracks spills of 50 barrels or more. That was 64 percent more than the annual average during the previous 10-year period, but it includes years with extraordinary hurricane activity.
The amount spilled by industry pales in comparison with seepage from natural fissures - an estimated 1,700 barrels per day off the coast of North America, regulators note.
Frank Gallander, Chevron Corp.'s adviser on subsea operations, drilling and completions, said offshore critics "want absolutes, and there aren't any."
But the industry has moved beyond the days of Santa Barbara, Gallander said.
If the crew running the Union Oil platform had been using today's technology, Gallander said, the Santa Barbara spill wouldn't have happened.
© 2008 Houston Chronicle