Understanding Oil Pollution: A Primer on the Santa Barbara Channel

By David Pu’u

Oil was first discovered in this region and apportioned to be mined as a resource during the Lincoln Administration, but the history of oil in Southern and Central California goes back much farther than that.

 Later, in the 1960’s, when the nation’s first offshore mining began in the Santa Barbara Channel, the industry developed and pushed its tar-laden grasp deep into the earth under the ocean. The ensuing effects of the industry on the national and in turn global economy became obvious as the resource was vied for and sought out.

It was a stark bullet point in oilfield development history when the first rig experiment failed at Platform Alpha and the Santa Barbara area suffered the effect of the first oceanic well head blowout, which led to what later proved to have been a failed attempt to stop the leak with drilling mud, and a succession of higher volume flow from leaks in ancient seepage points in the same field location, over the reserve in the channel.

History illustrated that the leak eventually slowed and was managed as pressure within the reserve field was bled off.

I was around for that prior, during and after. Our coastline was a mess and the disaster created a call to action, which basically formed what we today, call the Environmental movement.

 “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to  bring it to the attention of the American people … The Santa Barbara incident has  frankly touched the conscience of the American people.” 

President Richard Nixon

Nixon went on to advocate for an assemblage of pre-existing environmentally related agencies into a new one in ensuing years. The new collective was named the Environmental Protection Agency. Concurrently and in similar manner he assisted in the creation of the NOAA as well.

Today, almost fifty years later, as Industry leans into renewable energy and begins to apply some available technology in a more fiscally realistic manner, what does the potential end of oil mining mean for the Santa Barbara Channel and adjacent Coastal region?

For many thousands of years the region has been puking pollutant into the ocean and atmosphere and it is only in the past couple decades that the pattern had seemed to shift and the volume of oilfield presence had diminished.

So what is next? Will a shift towards usage of non-hydrocarbons for energy supply clean up our waters, air and coast, and rid us of oil presence?

It will probably have the opposite affect, according to various research studies and in a look through the arc of oil development in the region. The following illustrates some studies in science, research and industry, which are not common knowledge amongst the general public. The community should know what heads their way in the Central and S. CA. coastal regions, as it affects ocean goers and the state in significant ways.


Pollution loosely defined, is a resource out of place.

Toxicity (Pollution) is resolved through dilution, is a basic rule of Toxicology. It is an integral aspect in understanding how pollutants (resources in the wrong place) affect organisms.

CHON +S is a formula known to be the acronym for the chemical building blocks of life. Listed in a rough order of importance it reads: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Sulphur.

The oil reserves located in the continental shelf off our area were created as a result of a series of cataclysmic events that occurred around the Pleistocene Epoch, at which point the continents had moved into the relative position they occupy today and Man showed up on the Earth.

The organic material which became the hydrocarbon resource we today know as oil, is the result of these events and massive die-offs of large groups of animals which were sealed under the various geological structures created at that time. We call these pockets of organic debris, oil reserves. The bulk of these animals lived in the Mesozoic (middle) era, which was comprised of three periods: Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic.

It should be noted (Think CHON+S) that atmospheric carbon during this period was approximately 2.5 times what it is today. That is a large qualifier in understanding the large volume of organic material  that existed, which later became the content of the hydrocarbon (oil) reserves . The earth was far more full of foliage and in turn exceedingly large collections of animal life, which fed off that foliage. The largest being herbivores.

The Santa Barbara Channel

According to archaeological evidence, artifacts illustrate that oil in the form of tar was being used by the Chumash Indians in the  SW coastal regions of the NA continent as far back as 5000 BC as a resource for boat building and manufacture of containers, fuel for fires, etc.

What that says is that the hydrocarbon seeps which exist all throughout the region, being under pressure, created by both geologic forces and actions of microbial communities (they create methane as they process the oil into CHON+S) has been constant all though time.

Think of an oil reserve as a balloon which fills with gas until it begins to degrade and leak, and you will have reasonable understanding of what goes on beneath the SB Channel waters.

There is a LOT of oil in our area. It has been documented well in the logs of both Juan Cabrillo and James Cook, early explorers of our region.

The surface of the sea, which was perfectly smooth and tranquil, was covered with a thick, slimy substance, which when separated or disturbed by a little agitation, became very luminous, whilst the light breeze, which came principally from the shore, brought with it a strong smell of tar, or some such resinous substance. George Vancouver, Navigator’s log, under Cpt James Cook

The point of discovery during the Lincoln Admin which is thought to have started the Oil industry in Ca. and ended the whaling industry, is cited below.

“California will be found to have more oil in its soil than all the whales in the Pacific Ocean. The oil is struggling to the surface at every available point and is running down the rivers for miles.”-Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., Yale University, describing natural oil seeps near Sulfur Mountain in Ventura County (1864)

That this resource is naturally occurring in the region’s water columns does not change the fact that it  is indeed a pollutant. Being a resource out of place costs the biome energy to manage it, which it does via the benthic (microbial) communities which exist all around the seepage vents.

Hydrocarbon seepage from the world’s continental shelves affects ocean chemistry and provides a natural source of petroleum pollution. Geological Society of America 1999

In spite of the fact that the Platform A disaster created a consciousness about the danger of a large spill event, what it really did was lead people to believe that oil drilling in the Channel causes oil and tar to pollute the coast.

The opposite is actually true. By collecting and removing the pollutant, the Oil Industry is actually converting the hydrocarbon health hazard back into a resource by pulling it out of the biome, which allows for the system to focus energy on biomass creation evidenced in marine life which abounds in the region and always has, in spite of the previously uncollected pollutant prior. Removing the oil made the channel healthier.

In fact, via a series of studies conducted by the US Geological Society, UCSB Geology Dept, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst, Bren School, Santa Barbara APCD and the Oil Industry itself in the Coal Oil Point oil seep zone mined by Platform Holly, irrefutable evidence was presented which conclusively illustrated the potential which removing the oil has had in dramatically reducing air pollution, as well as increasing system health and decreasing the amount of tar-hydrocarbon pollution on our beaches.

The spatial coincidence between offshore oil production at Platform Holly and the observed decrease in seepage around Holly are probably related and attributable to the impact of oil production on reservoir pressure. Oil production from the Monterey Formation oil and gas reservoirs caused subsequent declines in reservoir pressure, thus removing the primary driving mechanism of the seepage. This finding implies that worldwide oil production may lead to declines in natural emissions of hydrocarbons on a global scale. Geological Society of America. 1999

So as we return the Channel to its prior state, to before we mined the reserves, expect pressures to build and oil once more cover our coast, not unlike it has for eons before we showed up.

The point was illustrated well when after the pipeline break at Refugio 2 years ago, the County of SB denied a trucking permit to carry oil out of the storage facility to processing plants located in Bakersfield. Storage facilities rapidly filled. Production was halted.

Two kayakers soon reported a large spill S of the Coal Oil point seepage area and the County announced an investigation into the source. A couple days later a never mind statement was issued.

“The source of the oil slick was determined to be naturally occurring “

But it is still a pollutant.

David Pu’u is an internationally recognized Photographer, Cinematographer and Writer, with experience ranging from news and magazine editorial work, fashion and brand development, to television and feature film production.
He holds certification as a Rescue Boat Operator and First Responder via K38 Maritime and AWA, and is trained in Risk Assessment  and Mitigation, in marine environments.
He has worked as a creative and advisor in think tank project environments at ARUP, the Sea-Space Initiative, the ongoing Neuroscience Project: Blue Mind, and the Seth Godin based marketing group: Triiibes.

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