Like carbonated soda bubbles, gas bubbles float to the surface of the ocean, where they burst into the atmosphere. Oil also drifts to the Channel's surface forming slicks, before it evaporates, degrades and drifts onto our beaches.
Oil and gas seeps have always been part of our history. Archaeological evidence shows that indigenous people in the Santa Barbara area used oil and tar as far back as 6,000 years ago.
Today, however, to the dismay of local beach-goers, sticky globules of tar lap up onto our coastline. This tar is an annoyance to many of us and is often perceived to be a manmade pollutant. In fact, the tar results from huge, natural seeps that have been spewing oil and gas into the Santa Barbara Channel for centuries.
Experts say some 1,500 years ago local Native Americans made use of the natural oil seeps to enhance their standard of living. For example, without the benefits of huge pieces of wood needed to make dugout style canoes, they turned to boiling tar to caulk their plank boats.And well before that time archaeological evidence shows woven water bottles were caulked with asphaltum or tar to make them waterproof (the tar was applied with hot pebbles). Women wadded up tar and used it as weights to hold down the bottoms of their grass skirts. Tar was used as a coating for sewing strings and fishing spears and in the construction of pipes and whistles. It was also used to cement fractures in broken bowls and vessels.
Early Explorers Discover Seeps...and Santa Barbara
Early sailing ships from abroad were often greeted by the sight of miles of tar and oil floating in the Santa Barbara Channel near Goleta, accompanied by the sulfur-like smell of the raw oil. Most historians agree that the first foreign explorer to lay eyes on the Goleta area did so from the crow's nest of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's flagship on Monday, October 16, 1542. Cabrillo recorded that the Native Americans along the Santa Barbara Channel used asphaltum to caulk their canoes. He followed the Native Americans' example, using the substance to waterproof two of his own ships.
In 1792, Captain Cook's famous navigator, George Vancouver, reported that the ocean near Goleta was covered with an oily surface in all directions. According to Vancouver, the oil was so thick that the entire sea took on an iridescent hue. Many other explorers reported similar sightings.
As early as the 1850s, California settlers began to tap this plentiful natural resource. Still three years before the country's first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania by Colonel Edwin L. Drake in 1859, emerging markets for oil attracted more and more entrepreneurs who originally came to California in search of gold. George Gilbert, a former whale oil refiner who had been unlucky at finding gold in Northern California, knew the importance of and need for oil. When he saw oil seeping out from the sides of the hills near Ojai in 1860, Gilbert dug deep pits and scooped up the oil. He built a refinery near his oil source and produced lamp oil.
So much natural oil flowed onto the surface near Gilbert's refinery in Ojai that nearby streams and rivers were polluted with it. When Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale University visited Gilbert's oil refinery in 1864, he wrote, "The oil is struggling to the surface at every available point and is running down the rivers for miles."
Oil and Gas Discoveries Help Save Coastal Oaks
In 1890, while drilling for hot sulfur water a resident detected a strong smell of gas. It wasn't It long before an editorial in the Santa Barbara Daily Press reported that the prospects were bright for this "cheap fuel." Local press viewed the availability of gas for fuel as the savior of the live oaks that were being cut down along the coastal mountains for use as firewood. Wood was the main source of fuel for cooking in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties at the time, and the discovery of gas and oil prevented further destruction of the few remaining wooded areas.
As the gas industry emerged in the 1880s, so did the Santa Barbara area's reputation as a health resort. In fact, until the turn of the century the area enjoyed as much prestige as some of the high-profile European spas and springs. In addition to the numerous mineral, hot, and cold springs which were exploited all around Santa Barbara, it was claimed that the prevailing southwest winds blowing over a large offshore oil and gas seep purified the atmosphere and was a decided benefit to almost all chronic illnesses.
In 1896, the first offshore oil production in the U.S. started along the coastline of Summerland. The prosperity of the Summerland oil fields came and went and, by 1920, most of the 400-plus oil wells were depleted. In spite of the ventures and early successes at Summerland, most early-day California oil explorers falsely believed that the coast of the Santa Barbara Channel held little crude oil. This changed dramatically in 1928 when the Barnsdall and Rio Grande oil companies discovered the Ellwood Oil Field about ten miles west of Santa Barbara. The oil was produced from piers that were built on Ellwood Beach. Oil tanks that were constructed in 1929 to store the Ellwood oil are still in use west of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus.
While the Ellwood Oil Field was discovered in the late 1920s, it wasn't until the mid-1940s that scientists began studying the intense offshore oil and gas seepage zone near Goleta. Subsequent studies were also conducted in the 1950s and 1970s. Spanning an area three miles long and one mile wide, the seep exhibits all the characteristics usually associated with a major underground oil deposit. Numerous oil and gas seeps are located along the entire coast of Santa Barbara County and Northern Ventura County.
The largest and most studied concentration of seeps are collectively referred to as the Coal Oil Point seeps. There are actually two large seepage areas; one close to shore and another located about two miles offshore. According to modern studies released by the California State Lands Commission in 1978, there have been more than 1,200 natural seeps charted in the entire Santa Barbara Channel. Half of these occur within three miles of Coal Oil Point.
The only area with more prolific natural seepage in the world is the Caspian Sea in the Republic of Azerbaijan (in the former Soviet Union) It's estimated that oil seepage for the entire Coal Oil Point area averages 130-150 barrels of oil each day. At a seepage rate of 150 barrels of oil per day, 55,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean every year. For comparison, the amount of oil released each year is enough to fuel all the cars on the road in Santa Barbara County for seven and one-half years. As a result of weather and ocean conditions, the greatest amount of tar appears on Santa Barbara beaches during the summer months. Surprisingly, scientific evidence indicates that the Coal Oil Point seeps are also responsible for half of the tar that washes up on beaches in the Los Angeles area.
Steel Pyramids Capture Escaping Gas
In 1982, the innovative Seep Containment Project was developed by ARCO, Mobil, and several other partners to capture the free-flowing gas off Coal Oil Point. Two 50-foot high steel pyramids were positioned on the ocean floor over this seep. These giant tent structures are used to capture escaping oil and gas from the ocean bottom. Weighing in at a massive 350 tons each and measuring 100 feet on each side, they cover one of the seeps' major vent areas.
From the beginning, the steel pyramids have successfully captured natural gas before it rises to the surface. The gas captured by the seep tents was initially about 25 percent of Santa Barbara County's total hydrocarbon air pollution, an amount roughly equal to the hydrocarbon emissions of more than 35,000 cars driving in and around Santa Barbara each day. When the steel pyramids are no longer needed, regulatory agencies will decide whether to remove the tents or leave them as artificial reefs.
Where Does the Oil Go?
Oil seeping into the Channel and onto the beaches is sometimes blamed on oil companies. Yet, history confirms that natural seeps are the cause of this phenomenon. The seeps produce a persistent oil slick that's usually carried north and west by ocean currents, generally coming ashore between Santa Barbara and Gaviota. As the oil rises to the surface and floats, it coagulates and biodegrades into tar. This is the same tar we find on our beaches along the Santa Barbara coastline. The most heavily impacted beaches are those between Goleta Point and El Capitan Beach, although wind and currents sometimes take the oil slick northeast onto Santa Barbara city beaches and as far away as Los Angeles beaches. The amount of tar that ends up on the beach also depends on wave activity, since high surf conditions tend to break up the oil slick and prevent it from reaching the beaches.
The watercolor apperance in the photo above is the result of an oil slick created by natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel.
This portion of our website was created from a pamphlet produced by the Western States Petroleum Institute entitled, "The History of Oil and Gas Seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel." For more information about the WSPA, please visit their web site at www.wspa.org.