A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara


Brett Aho, Sandy Carter, Jéssica Malinalli Coyotecatl Contreras

From the vantage point of a parking lot on Ortega Hill in Summerland, it is easy to think about petromodernity. We are standing next to a software company; we see the company label on hats, packages, and a multitude of cars, while we also hear the noise coming from the traffic on the 101. The impressive shoreline view gives way to multiple oil platforms that invite us to ask questions about how cars are produced, driven, parked, and filled with products.

Established in 1889, the town of Summerland soon became known to outsiders as “Spookville,” due to the seances that its founder Henry Lafayette Williams would hold at the town’s central temple. Shortly after its founding, Summerland experienced an economic boom with the discovery of natural gas in 1890, followed by the discovery of oil a few years later (“Southern Santa Barbara County and Its Resources" 1900). These discoveries, however, would quickly transform Summerland from a spiritualist mecca into a testing ground for oil companies to experiment with new extraction techniques. Between 1895 and 1906, over 412 wells were drilled in the Summerland area.

In 1898, Summerland became home to the first offshore oil well in the world, the Treadwell Wharf, a pier stretching 1300 feet into the ocean, upon which wells were sunk into the sea floor. A monument stands by the seashore dedicated to this initial burst of extractive ingenuity and the role it played in shaping global oil extraction.

In October 2017, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 44 into law, committing up to $2 million annually to remediate the "orphan" or "legacy" wells on the coast of California for the next ten years. The Summerland case was often cited as an exemplary illustration for the orphanage process: oil companies built wells and wharves during the late 19th and early 20th century, later ended their operation, and then removed visible infrastructure, giving way to other economic enterprises in the region. However, many oil wells have leaked since then, and it has become the responsibility of the state to "re-abandon" the wells (Environmental Impact Report 2017). This process brings to the forefront the discussion about what is natural seepage and what is the result of human processes.

For what was once intended to be a restful haven, Summerland today is an incredibly loud place. The town is dominated by the 101 freeway which cuts between Summerland proper and the ocean. There is no escape from the sight of the massive stream of concrete and asphalt and the zooming cacophony of cars that flow in both directions. From the perspective of a Summerlander, it seems difficult to imagine a worse place to put a freeway. In fact, the uninterrupted freeway is a relatively new addition; until 1991, there were still stoplights on the 101 in Santa Barbara County. In a sense, oil culture has inflicted two wounds on the town. The first was the gouging of physical and metaphorical holes into what was once a religious mecca, transforming the landscape into an industrial oil extraction site. The second involved carving a massive scar down it’s center, cutting the town off from the ocean and its natural beauty.

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