The History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel--Opening Reception
Naturally occurring oil and asphalt seeps close to Summerland were known to the native Chumash peoples who used asphaltum from this area for thousands of years. From 1890-1898, asphalt from Goleta, Carpenteria, and More Mesa was mined and shipped around the country. In fact, some of the historic streets of New Orleans are paved with tar from the Alcatraz Asphalt Company’s mine on land in Goleta, now part of UCSB.
Sometime before 1894, enterprising prospectors also recognized that natural deposits of oil and gas were the source for these seeps and began digging the first wells. Hundreds of wooden derricks had sprouted across the beaches and bluffs of Summerland by 1895; and in 1897, H. L. Williams created the world’s first offshore oil rig by drilling a well next to a wharf that extended 300 feet into the Santa Barbara Channel. Within the next 5 years, a total of 412 wells had been dug, including 150 offshore; but each well’s output dwindled quickly and only a few wells remained active in the 1920s. While the oil boom did not last long, it forever changed the local economy and the landscape and spurred the development and technology of the commercial diving industry.
Few are aware that the quest for oil led to Santa Barbara being recognized worldwide as the birthplace of deep-water commercial diving. Oil companies looking to take advantage of deep oil reserves off-shore needed men to go down more than 1,000 feet to drill and seal the wells. In the early 1960s, a group of locals developed revolutionary technology that continues to define the field, including the first commercial use of helium-oxygen, the first commercial lockout diving bell, Purisima, lighter weight diving gear, and innovative helmets and breathing apparatus.
A modern offshore oil platform is a multi-level steel structure that operates around the clock like a fully self-contained city built to house workers and all the equipment for extracting oil. The oil is then transferred to shore by pipelines or pumped aboard tankers; but that is only half of the story. Their undersides often serve as artificial reefs, attracting and supporting abundant fish and marine life; the rigs themselves provide a critical intersection between oil and sea; and oil processing and handling problems led to the rise of the modern environmental movement.
On January 28, 1969, a blow-out on an oil platform just six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara spilled between 80,000-100,000 barrels of crude oil into the channel and onto beaches from Goleta to Ventura and the four northern Channel Islands. Marine animals including dolphins, seals and sea lions, as well as thousands of sea birds, were killed by what was then the largest oil
spill in United States waters. Today, it still ranks third largest after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills. Widespread media coverage throughout the country led to public outrage and the demand for political action to protect the environment. Just one year after the spill, the first Earth Day event was held, creating a new national tradition that is still observed in the U.S. and in 175 other countries around the world. Unfortunately, on May 19, 2015, an estimated 3,400 barrels of crude oil spilled down onto Refugio Beach from an onshore pipeline, once again killing marine animals and birds, affecting four California marine-protected areas, and fouling beaches.
Whether as a fuel or an additive, oil is an integral part of our daily lives. From a 42-gallon barrel of oil, only 19.4 gallons is used to produce gasoline. The rest is used to produce everyday products such as: ink, ballpoint pens, bicycle tires, nail polish, medicine, life jackets, skis, guitar strings, shampoo, toothbrushes, sun glasses, bandages, and footballs.
Come learn all of this and much more at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum at the opening reception for The History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel on Thursday, September 20, 1918, 5:30-7pm.