The disastrous deluge of BP oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico evokes the memory of a blowout more than 40 years ago that, although not a carbon copy of the Deepwater Horizon incident, remains hauntingly similar in several important ways. The 1969 Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field spill in the Santa Barbara Channel was an unprecedented ecological disaster at the time caused by a natural gas-induced offshore rig blowout that caught the oil and gas industry off guard and required a tremendous effort to fix.

What remains to be seen, in addition to just how long the Deepwater Horizon leaks goes unplugged, is whether its legacy leads to the kind of profound changes brought on by the Santa Barbara spill, which amounted to an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil in the sea and covered hundreds of square kilometers. Santa Barbara's misfortunes were influential in the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the inaugural Earth Day observance—all in 1970.

BP's woes are, of course, on a much grander scale, given that estimates put the leakage at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day, and counting. And, thanks in part to the Dos Cuadras, Exxon Valdez and other infamous spills, there are a lot more regulations that BP may have violated (the Obama administration announced a criminal investigation into Deepwater last week).

Just like the fallout 40 years ago, changes may be on the horizon. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) last week notified BP of its intent to file suit under the Clean Water Act over the ongoing Gulf oil spill. This came one day after the CBD notified the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard that it was suing them for authorizing the use of toxic dispersants without ensuring that these chemicals would not harm endangered species and their habitats. And last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called for new operating standards and requirements for offshore energy companies as well as ordered a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.

In 1969, as an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Harvey Molotch had a front-row seat to the Dos Cuadras disaster and its subsequent ramifications. His article, "Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America," based on the incident would go on to become a founding document in the then-fledgling field of environmental sociology. Scientific American caught up with Molotch, now a sociology professor at New York University, to get his thoughts on Deepwater, its causes and its likely legacy.

What was the Santa Barbara community's initial reaction to the oil leak in the Santa Barbara Channel?
Offshore oil drilling was for most people a new phenomenon in 1969, even though the Summerland Offshore Oil Field had been discovered there in 1957.  [Oil was drilled from that location, a little more than a kilometer into the Santa Barbara Channel and under 30 meters of water, until 1996.] Although the area had hosted terrestrial drilling sites for decades, most residents initially protested the new offshore rigs for aesthetic rather than ecological reasons. People never imagined an underwater blowout. On land, you could have control and more direct access to what you're doing. This was not so in the ocean.

Do you see parallels between the current situation unfolding in the Gulf region and the events that took place in Santa Barbara County in 1969?

There are several stark differences between Santa Barbara in the late 1960s and the Gulf region of today. For one, the residents of Santa Barbara and its surrounding area had a different social and economic relationship with the oil industry. At least in the city of Santa Barbara, but also to significant degree in the surrounding communities of Santa Barbara County there was less dependence on the oil industry than in the current Gulf situation. Indeed, the Santa Barbara vision was one of tourism, higher education and, as it was termed at the time "clean industry".  There was also well in place a strong presence of major affluence, including a good number of people who were politically, culturally and economically well connected to power centers in the country.

Another difference with the Gulf situation is topographical. The oil in the Santa Barbara Channel was immediately visible to almost anyone with decent eyesight because the city is built almost as an amphitheater to the sea. In contrast the "coastline" of the Gulf is not really a line at all. Instead there are bayous, inlets and wetlands that stretch for miles from the open waters of the Gulf toward higher lands farther in. So you do not experience the open water unless you make a deliberate effort to do so. The major population centers are thus removed from direct exposure (at least in the currently affected zones).

Despite these various regional and topological differences, and despite all the changes in drilling technology that have occurred over the decades, the scenario is in some ways eerily similar. Just like BP, Union Oil at the time was caught unawares, and it took them some time to shut down the leak. And it certainly took them awhile to get their stories straight. As a result, in part [because] of the continuous suspicion of the industry, controversy persisted for years in Santa Barbara about whether or not the leak had actually been altogether stopped or diverted into seats elsewhere in the Santa Barbara Channel (although at greatly reduced volume).

Did government, not to mention the oil industry, fail to learn an important lesson from the Dos Cuadras spill?
Neither Union Oil nor BP planned to have these accidents. But accidents, precisely because they are unanticipated, reveal underlying political realities, including the nature of the regulatory process. In both cases those processes were revealed to be inadequate. Accusations now being made that the [U.S.] Minerals Management Service [MMS] is "in the oil industry's pocket" haven't changed; they're still the same as they were after the Santa Barbara spill.

Is the solution to pass more laws and tighten industry regulations further?
I'm a regulation person; I think that's key. The whole idea of a business having to file an environmental impact statement before starting any work, for example, was really a transformative thing that grew out of the oil spill and the California Environmental Quality Act. And, of course, we learn in both cases how important it is to not rely on industry self-policing. There must be independent regulation, however difficult that goal may be to achieve.

The oil industry hasn't exactly been seen as a vanguard of the green movement. Will they have to work harder now to improve their image?
Beyond tougher regulations, for the oil industry to continue to operate they will have to ante up in some way and probably accede to some of the demands that are made for reform. They did not seem, for example, to be resisting the breakup of the MMS that President Obama is putting into place.

Learning from Santa Barbara, we might also expect the industry to be more willing to, in effect, give back to the affected communities through environmentally relevant contributions. That might include things that do not really involve the environment in a direct way but consist of in-kind donations for things like parks, schools and other scenic amenities. In the case of the Gulf there may be focused efforts to remediate impacts on fisherpeople's lives. In the case of Santa Barbara some of this was generated as part of legal settlements launched by local governments that placed conditions on further land-based and offshore developments.

Although the BP response has not [showed] strong evidence for it, oil companies' public relations operations are so much more evolved compared to Union Oil['s] in 1969. I would expect a much more dedicated and smooth effort to bolster local support.

What does this mean for the development of renewable energy sources?
This is certainly a gift to the green movement; you could call it that. A harsh gift, but it will strongly influence interest in the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other types of environmental groups. The sort of ground swell of activity that happened in Santa Barbara because of the dawning of this environmental issue won't happen here, though. It will be more of an eking out of change in a more environmentalist direction.

So, even though the Deepwater oil leak will end up being orders of magnitude larger than the spill near Santa Barbara, you're expecting that less will change as a result?

There'll be some political impact from this leak but this impact will be less than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s because at that time there was almost a religious awakening to the importance of protecting the environment. Something like that could only happen once.