The Chumash occupied the area surrounding Coal Oil Point (COP) for at least 15,000 years (Simmons 1998; Fagan 2004). On December 4, 1796, Spanish conquistadors and Catholic Padres forced the Chumash off their land and into the mission system ("Our History"). 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 (Guerrini 2010). Since then, tens of millions of barrels of oil have been discovered here.
With the obvious exception of Platform Holly, the relationship between oil, people, and the land at Coal Oil Point is largely invisible, in part due to the ongoing environmental restoration of the area. Our project aimed to make that relationship visible through different narratives and visual representation. We did this by exploring three important dynamics we 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.
Drilling for oil near Coal Oil Point began in the 1920s, and the Bolsa Chica Oil Company started production directly off the point in 1928 (NOAA 2016). 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 of 1942. In the mid 20th century, oil production around Coal Oil Point 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 Coal Oil Point ("Planning Commission" 1987). The proposal-turned-lawsuit proved controversial and was abandoned after strong opposition from locals and the UCSB administration. The University of California bought Coal Oil Point in the 1970s, and by the 1990s had incorporated it into the UC Natural Reserve System. The Snowy Plover reserve has helped ensure much of the oil that still resides beneath the point remains inaccessible to oil companies with newer technology capable of extracting it. Veneco, the company that operated platform Holly, had been required to help decommission and clean up the remaining oil infrastructure at Coal Oil Point, but after the company went bankrupt in 2015, the expensive decommissioning process has been abandoned.
Coal Oil Point is accessible to students of UC Santa Barbara and local residents of Isla Vista. To access the point, we followed Slough Road, which weaves around a preserve of native California grasses, brackish slough waters, eucalyptus trees, and big skies. Upon reaching the road’s end, we parked and faced a choice: either visit the Reserve’s nature center, with its documentation and interpretation of the scientific and cultural history of the area, or walk toward the shoreline. We chose the latter, taking a winding trail smelling of sweet grasses, eucalyptus, and salty oil. This led us to a collection of infrastructure left over from the site’s earlier inhabitants, including ragged brick fence markers, an imposing Celtic cross grave marker, a small school building, and a dissolving dovecote. These pieces of Coal Oil Point history overlook crashing waves and signs admonishing visitors to be mindful of the site's mascot -- the Snowy Plover -- the focus of the site's preservation work.
The smooth sand sinks visitors into itself as they walk out to where the snowy plovers nest. Small rocks and sand hoppers dot the coast, while the most obvious evidence of this area's oily past, Platform Holly, bobs 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.