Massive Huntington Beach oil spill reveals failed legacy of state, federal coastal protection efforts

October 6, 2021

The only way to stop oil spills is to stop drilling for oil, starting with ending the practice of permitting new wells and using local governments’ land use authority to ban the associated facilities and infrastructure.

The ecologically disastrous oil spill of more than 120,000 gallons currently lapping onto beaches in Orange County, Calif., traces its origins to a fundamentally flawed belief that has underpinned state and federal government policy regulating offshore drilling in California. This is the idea that oil drilling and piping can occur safely with proper government oversight. It cannot; drilling will always result in spills, no matter which government agency or entity is in charge of regulating the activity. The only way to stop oil spills is to stop drilling for oil, starting with ending the practice of permitting new wells and using local governments’ land use authority to ban the associated facilities and infrastructure.

In response to this latest oil spill disaster,’s SAFE Cities movement is highlighting actions that City Councils and County Boards of Supervisors in California can move on immediately, should they choose to use existing legal authorities available to local governments statewide. These policy solutions will protect communities, the environment, and the climate by stopping fossil fuel industry expansion and accelerating the complete phase out and decommissioning of the oil industry —onshore and offshore. They will help prevent catastrophes like the Huntington Beach oil spill from happening again. They will set a powerful example for Gov. Newsom and the Biden administration to follow. And they will help finally culminate the legacy of coastal protection efforts that began following another major oil spill disaster in Santa Barbara in 1969.

“This is the sixth time in the past 55 years that an oil spill of more than 50,000 gallons has devastated California’s marine environments,” said Nathan Taft, an Orange County-based land use policy expert for SAFE Cities who lives 10 miles from Huntington Beach. “Gov. Newsom’s actions on drilling, both offshore and onshore, fall well shy of the lofty trajectory set by his words, speeches, and statements on climate change and environmental protection. Why should we trust a governor who has issued more than 100 permits for oil wells located offshore in California? Cities and counties must step into this leadership void. When the state and federal governments finally take the actions necessary to end oil drilling in California, they will be following a trail blazed by local governments.”

The federal government has the authority to lease drilling operations on the ocean floor from 3 miles to 200 miles offshore. The state government possesses authority from 3 miles to the mean high tideline. However, local governments have zoning and land use authority over their boundaries. That means that the oil industry and pipeline companies must get permitting approval from cities and counties to construct the onshore facilities and related infrastructure necessary to access refineries and markets. While companies can circumvent the use of pipelines with floating oil rigs, this method is more expensive and requires high oil prices to be viable.

In the mid-1980s, environmental advocacy group Save Our Shores and the city of Santa Cruz sparked a movement among local governments in coastal California. City voters passed a ballot initiative requiring their approval for any zoning changes that would permit onshore oil drilling facilities and infrastructure. In the years following, 15 cities and nine counties would adopt similar laws from Humboldt County to San Diego County. The efforts primarily focused on the North Coast, Bay Area, and Central Coast — including the counties of Sonoma, San Mateo, the City and County of San Francisco, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz. In Southern California, San Diego County and the cities of San Diego, Redondo Beach, and Laguna Beach adopted these laws.

This strategy has defeated industry offshore drilling plans in the past. In 1987, Shell Oil received a permit to operate offshore oil platform Julius in San Luis Obispo County. However, voters rejected a measure required to approve zoning for onshore facilities, pipelines, and power stations, scuttling the plans, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper. The oil industry sued to overturn many of the ordinances, but failed when a federal appeals court judge ruled in favor of the local governments. The Western Oil and Gas Association, later renamed the Western States Petroleum Association, warned that the ordinances would “create a wall from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line blocking development of oil in the outer continental shelf,” according to a report from the University of California, Irvine Law School.

This strategy has expanded in the decades since; Ventura County and Santa Barbara County approved these ordinances in the late 1990s, and most recently Marin County approved a law in August 2020. In the wake of the Huntington Beach oil spill, more of these laws are needed to protect coastal communities in California.

Local governments also possess authority to address existing operations. In Whatcom County, Wash., which is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries, the County Council recently approved a policy permanently banning all fossil fuel infrastructure, and enacting groundbreaking restrictions on the existing refineries’ ability to expand. In Portland, Ore., city government officials in September rejected a certification necessary for an oil-by-rail company to renew its air quality permit with state regulators. This led the state to revoke the company’s permit, casting doubt on its entire operation. In Culver City, the City Council voted in June to phase out drilling in its portion of the Inglewood Oil Field. Last month, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors began the process of phasing out urban drilling when it banned new oil wells and changed the zoning for existing wells to “nonconforming.”

More about SAFE Cities:
SAFE Cities is a growing movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking clean energy solutions to ensure a just transition. Already dozens of cities and counties across the US – and several more around the globe – have passed concrete policies to keep their communities SAFE from fossil fuels, build renewable energy infrastructure, and create good, long-term jobs.


Media contacts: 

Peter Jensen, SAFE Cities Communications Coordinator,, +1 415 532 3817 (Pacific Time)

Nathan Taft, Digital and Communications Lead for SAFE Cities,, +1 949 235 6130 (Pacific Time)