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The Phantoms on the Pacific

The phantom derricks rise out of the hazy distance on Santa Barbara Bay like seven war monuments. On January 29, 1969, one of those offshore rigs seven miles out ruptured like the heart valve of an old smoker and sent 200,000 gallons of thick crude oil spewing into the water. Beaches along the middle reaches of California were fouled black, thousands of dolphins, seals, fish and sea birds were killed. And the modern environmental movement came marching out of that black sludge. The first Earth Day was spawned in the angry reaction to the Santa Barbara catastrophe.

Last week, standing on Santa Barbara Beach, I realized those dormant oil wells were at the heart of the reaction back in Florida after presidential nominee John McCain and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced that they now supported relaxing Florida's ban on drilling in coastal waters. The ban evolved from the 1969 California disaster and the terrible fear what a spill like that would do to Florida's beaches.

Drilling technology has improved over the last four decades. Offshore rigs have withstood hurricanes without a major breach. But Santa Barbara residents told me that allowing drilling to resume, ever, would be unthinkable. Before this presidential campaign, before $4-a-gallon gas became a campaign issue, I thought the same was true in Florida.


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