Summerland, in Santa Barbara CA, is often depicted as a coastal town with a beach of white sand and year-round sun where people can bath, exercise, and relax. In this imaginary, the history of this place begins with an oil boom at the turn of the 20th century that has now faded. Since 2011, Summerland’s residents started to push for governmental acknowledgment and remediation of seepage from oil wells that were abandoned decades ago. According to the complaining parts, the leakage was polluting the sensorial experience of Summerland (its smell and its sight), therefore affecting its identity and income. However, a central point of contention became whether the seepage was in fact from the ‘legacy wells’ or if it came from a ‘natural’ occurrence, and how to demonstrate either one of them.
In this paper, I describe two processes. The first one is the 2011-2017 discussion regarding the origin of the seepage that resulted in the development of a new technique of visualization and a new state legislation, Senate Bill 44 “Coastal Hazard and Legacy Oil and Gas Well Removal and Remediation Program” (SB-44). Through textual and visual analysis of such techniques, I suggest that these new forms of representation reproduce the vertical aesthetics that difficulted the seepage visibility in the first place. The second process situates SB-44 within a longer history of oil extraction in Summerland. I suggest that a historical perspective questions the boundedness of the decommissioning process of oil infrastructures. Through an archival research of local legislation and newspapers, I show that entanglement of Summerland with oil has never been interrupted since late 19 th century, contrary to the town self-described history.
Out of these two developments, I argue that the visibility of oil is tied to an active effort of producing the common depiction of Summerland which includes a defined population, one that is well-off and white. I demonstrate that there has been a constant marginalization of population that does not fit such pattern that can be traced through legal and representational techniques. I propose that this case study can shed light into the classed and racialized history of the Southern California coast, as well as into the lifecycle of energy infrastructures.
Jéssica Malinalli Coyotecatl Contreras is a Ph.D. student at UCSB, in the Anthropology Department. She has an M.A. in Social Anthropology from El Colegio de Michoacán (2013). She was a graduate fellow in the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Energy Justice in Global Perspective at UCSB (2018-2019). Her doctoral dissertation project addresses energy infrastructure (natural gas pipelines) in Northwest Mexico from the perspective of space production, indigenous sovereignties, and energy justice to critically engage with energy transition. She also researches rural-urban relations, right to the city, and feminism. Her work has appeared in public writing in online forums like VC Reporter, LaBicikleta, as well as in peer-reviewed journals like Revista Ciudades and Ecología Política, Cuadernos de Debate Internacional.