We don’t often get to talk about cold weather in September. Having just posted a piece extolling the Indian Summers of Southern California, I feel somehow responsible (The Citrus Belt).

As the National Weather Service, Scientific Forcaster Discussion puts it for September 8th., “surprisingly strong cold front for this time of year moving through central California today. And highs ... are again shattering low maximum records in the valleys where it's been mainly in the 60s so far...”.  Let me tell you, that front rolled on through Upper Ojai and turned September into March.

It will warm up over the weekend and the summer will resume. It’s not so much that I dislike the cold, it is more that I resent the intrusion of weather into our placid lives: Southern California, as Carey McWilliams pointed out, has Climate not Weather!

In Britain, where Weather triumphs over Climate, the atmosphere oozes moisture. The phrase Scotch mist is perhaps the best, understated, description of the prevailing humidity - and is used to deny the actual phenomenum of rainfall by substituting the more benign notion of swirling vapor. I still use the term to describe any rain falling at a rate less than an inch an hour. In Upper Ojai it is debatable whether the term oil-seep comes from the same Scottish tradition of understatement: but here, it is the ground not the air that customarily oozes.

Interest in these oil seeps began, for European settlers, in 1854 when surface oil from Sulpher Mountain was collected and then refined for oil lamps. By the 1860’s, tunnels were dug into the mountain and became, for that era, highly productive generating up to 20 barrels a day. They continued in production for almost a century and a half. The last Sulphur Mountain oil tunnel was only plugged and abandoned in 1997.

Cabrillo made use of the asphaltum from seeps to caulk his flagship San Miguel on the eponymous Channel Island off Ventura in the 1540’s and it is here that he later died and is puportedly buried - although his grave has not been found. The explorers had seen the Chumash use the sticky oil to caulk their ocean-going Tomols as well as making woven baskets waterproof.

The first commercially productive well in California was in Rancho Ojai just down the Ojai Road as it heads to Santa Paula along side of Sisar creek and just north of the oil-seeping Sulphur Mountain. It was drilled to a depth of 550 feet in 1866 and produced 15-20 barrels a day.

California’s first gusher was located close by in Adam’s Canyon which winds up from the Santa Clara flood plain a little west of the 150 towards the Sulphur Mountain ridge. This blew in 1892 and 40,000 barrels ran down the canyon into the river below and were washed out to sea just south of Ventura harbor before it was capped. There were no video cameras to record the environmental damage and this, the first major oil spill in the United States, has passed quietly into History. In 1910 the greatest gusher of them all was unleashed in the Midway-Sunset field 2 miles north of Maricopa which ran unchecked for eighteen months and spilled over 8 million barrels.

Santa Barbara’s oil fields were discovered towards the end of the nineteenth century and in 1896 the County’s first off-shore well was sunk off of Summerland. The 1969, 100,000 barrel off-shore spill in the County’s Dos Cuadros field focused world-wide attention on the environmental havoc wrought by the pursuit of oil and is the event that spurred the creation of the first Earth Day, and arguably began the modern environmental movement.

This summer’s Gulf spill, at around a total of five million barrels was smaller than the Maricopa leak but occured in a far more environmentally sensitive area. Both wells are estimated to have produced, at their peak, around 100,000 barrels a day. BP’s well was finally capped in July after a three month gush.

Exactly a hundred years separates the Maricopa and the BP Deepwater Horizon spills: both were historic gushers, both, for their time, were deep wells. Maricopa reached 2,225 feet before it became productive. BP drilled over two miles into the earth’s crust to unleash their gusher (after passing through a mile of water). Clearly, the earth’s supply of oil is finite, but our technical ability to access it, by this one very rough measure, has kept pace with its increasing scarcity.

Which brings us, of course, to the Peak Oil hypothesis which is driving at least one global movement to prepare for the apocalypse (Transition). My position is, as Peter Maass suggests in his Crude World - The Violent Twilight of Oil, Knopf, New York, 2009, that we are going to keep on grubbing for fossil fuels for as long as they remain the high density/low cost energy source (Cosmic Futility). Furthermore, I would expect the eventual tapering off in oil production (it is currently increasing at quite a clip) to be exactly equalled by the increase in solar production and reductions in energy use across the transportation, industrial, shelter, appliance and communications spectra. Demand is currently around 85 M barrels a day and is growing, according to the International Energy Agency at one M barrels per day per year so that by 2030 global consumption will reach 105 M barrels per day. Fear that said barrellage will not be forthcoming is driving the Peak Oil hysteria.

Over the years I have looked forward to the impending apocalypse with all the fervid anticipation of someone brought up in a caste system genuinely believing that any revolution would most likely advance their relative position in the world. Having arrived at the realisation that by any measurement I am now in the fortunate half of the world (and fair-dibs, always was) such topsy-turvydom has inevitably less appeal. Age then, has fostered conservatism but also, I hope, an historical clear-sightedness: every century battles impending doom, be it Malthusian hunger, depopulation or the scourge of witchcraft. We have arrived at a time when, in the popular imagination, environmental despoilation, global warming and peak oil have formed the perfect doomsday trifecta.

All three are powerful notions that are shaping our world and making it less likely that we will succumb to their worst impacts. Which is to say that a little honest-to-god terror is a good thing. But if we are not quite at the point espoused by Charles Mackay, in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Richard Bentley, London, 1841, it’s certainly time for a little historical perspective.

As a localore (a local-historian), I am delighted that the above examples were so geographically close at hand; as a chaparralian I am not entirely happy to be living in the oil-lands. Any debate on energy in Ojai must take account of our unique historical role in the development of the industry. It is not an abstract concern that can be dealt with by the application of the appropriate bumper-sticker. Oil is as close to the heart of Ojai as Citrus, and may well outlive it as a source of local wealth.