A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara

Coal Oil Point

Stephen Borunda, Nicky Rehnberg, Theo LeQuesne

The Chumash occupied the area surrounding Coal Oil Point (COP) for 13,000 years. On December 4, 1796, Spanish settlers forced the Chumash off their land and into the mission system, and the area that would become Coal Oil Point was turned over to cattle ranching in 1840. Ranchers later sold or leased their land to oil companies and since then tens of millions of barrels of oil have been discovered here.

Drilling for oil near COP began in the 1920s, and the Bolsa Chica Oil Company started production directly off COP in 1928. Dozens of  derricks and offshore drilling piers appeared along the bluffs. The recoverable oil ran out relatively quickly and oil companies abandoned most onshore production in the 1940s. However, the nearby Ellwood oil field remained an important hub of oil development and the area was bombed by Japanese submarines in February 1942. In the mid 20th century, oil production around COP moved offshore and Platform Holly, the controversial offshore platform associated with the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, now dominates the horizon.

As of 2018, the platform is currently in the process of being decommissioned. In the 1980s, ARCO proposed three more offshore platforms off the coast of COP. The proposal-turned-lawsuit proved controversial and was abandoned after strong opposition from locals and the UCSB administration. The UC bought COP in the 1970s, and by the 1990s had incorporated it into the UC Natural Reserve System. The Snow Plover reserve has helped ensure much of the oil that remains beneath COP remains inaccessible to oil companies with newer technology capable of extracting it. Veneco, the company that operated platform Holly, had been required to help the Reserve decommission and clean up the remaining oil infrastructure at COP but after the company went bankrupt in 2015, the expensive decommissioning process has been abandoned.

Coal Oil Point (COP) is especially accessible to students of UC Santa Barbara and local residents of Isla Vista. To access it, one has to follow Slough Road, which weaves around an undeveloped landscape of native California grasses, eucalyptus trees, and big skies at the ends of Storke Road and El Colegio Road. Upon reaching the road’s end, visitors can park and either visit the reserve’s nature center, with further documentation and interpretation of the scientific and cultural history of the area, or walk towards the shoreline. If visitors choose the latter, they can either follow a more direct road or take a more winding trail smelling of sweet grasses, Eucalyptus, and salty oil. This leads to a collection of infrastructure left from the site’s former twentieth-century inhabitants, including ragged brick fence markers, an imposing Celtic cross grave marker, a small school building, and a dissolving dovecote. These pieces of COP history overlook crashing waves and signs advertising mindfulness of the site’s mascot - the Snowy Plover.

The smooth sand sinks visitors into itself as they walk out to shore where the plovers nest. Small rocks and sand hoppers dot the coast, while the outline of a shadowy Channel Island framing the most obvious evidence of COP’s oily past, Platform Holly, lies on the horizon. Visitors who investigate the ground further will see globs of taffy-like black tar, called tar balls, and perhaps better understand that there is a reason that Coal Oil Point has its name.

With the obvious exception of Platform Holly, the relationship between oil, people, and the land at Coal Oil Point is largely invisible. Our research project aimed to make that relationship visible through different narratives and visual representation. We did this by exploring three important dynamics we have discovered through our research. The first is the process through which early development of oil production began at Coal Oil Point in the 1930s, the second is the ARCO controversy over building three more offshore platforms just off the coast of Coal Oil Point in the 1980s, and the third is the contemporary context of habitat restoration at Coal Oil Point as a UCSB Natural Reserve and its complicated relationship with the oil industry.

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