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Harvard Affiliates Testify Against Oil Drilling on California Harvard-Owned Land

The Harvard Management Company is located at 600 Atlantic Ave., Boston. HMC spun off its natural resources team in 2020.
The Harvard Management Company is located at 600 Atlantic Ave., Boston. HMC spun off its natural resources team in 2020. By Steve S. Li
By Christie E. Beckley and Xinni (Sunshine) Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission voted to approve an exploratory oil drilling project on former Harvard land holdings in California on Jan. 31, following testimony on environmental repercussions.

After more than two hours of testimony, the planning commission approved the exploratory permit with a 4-1 vote. Harvard Law School student Grant S. Pace and Harvard Kennedy School alumna Karla M. Figueroa testified against the project alongside local advocates.

The project, nicknamed Hidden Canyon Test Well, involves Michigan oil producer West Bay Exploration exploring potential oil and gas reserves in one acre of land in the North Fork Ranch — Harvard-owned property — 10 miles West of the residential New Cuyama Valley.

In 2012, Brodiaea Inc. — a formerly Harvard-controlled company that owns the 6,565-acre North Fork Ranch — planted an 840-acre vineyard on the property. Though Brodiaea became one of the biggest water users in the valley, it does not currently own any rights to underground resources.

Eight years later, Harvard spun out its natural resources team, including Brodiaea, to investment management firm Solum Partners. The Harvard Management Company — which manages the University’s $50.9 billion endowment — remains a limited partner in Solum.

During the testimony, climate advocates, environmental academics and local residents directly affected by the drilling argued that the project would have negative climate consequences, including the spread of arsenic.

Pace, an HLS student passionate about environmental science, said there is “no room for new fossil fuel development if we want to survive.”

“We have to actively phase out existing fossil fuel reserves,” he added.

As a representative of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student group that long called on Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry, Pace alleged that the University is complicit in accelerating climate change.

“Harvard’s land is being used to attempt to profit off of accelerated destruction of the planet through these land grabs and fossil fuel developments,” Pace said.

“The permit is a death sentence to almost all life on the planet and empowers Harvard to continue its colonial violence at the expense of farmers’ rights and livelihoods in the Cuyama Basin,” he added.

HMC spokesperson Patrick McKiernan declined to comment, citing policies against commenting on individual investments.

The commission voted in favor of the project, stating that at this stage, they can only account for the direct impacts of the drilling, rather than long-term climate effects.

After 24 days of drilling the exploratory well, West Bay will remove the drill rig. If after one year, the company does not want to produce oil at the site, they will abandon the well. If they decide to continue drilling, the company will then need to apply for long-term site usage. At that hearing, the commission will be required to consider the environmental impacts of oil drilling.

During the hearing, Pace said while he could have brought a law student perspective into the testimony, the legal tools he would have sought to rely on do not exist.

“We don’t have a meaningful legal pathway to stop these projects, to stop these land grabs, and to limit carbon emissions,” he said. “I knew things were bad, but seeing it in practice with no guardrails, no brakes — it’s just very jarring and concerning.”

HKS alumna Rachel E. Carle — an organizer with Stop Harvard Land Grabs, a Harvard group calling on the University to implement reparations and end allegedly global farmland investments — organized Harvard affiliates to participate in the court hearing.

In an emailed statement, Carle wrote that Harvard affiliates began advocating against the project after local farmers and residents realized “an investor was causing harm in their community,” and it “traced back to Harvard.”

SHLG member Kayla P. Springer ’26 said she believes students have a responsibility to raise awareness about Harvard’s land grabs.

“These communities and organizers are up against a really powerful force, and I just think it’s important for Harvard students to stand in solidarity with them and speak up about what’s going on,” Springer said.

Nicolette T. Reale ’26, another member of SHLG, said Harvard’s actions were “ironic.”

“In the classroom, we learn that all these things are bad, but our university is actively participating in it,” she said. “It’s a little disheartening to know that the University will be one of those forces that we’re fighting, but they’re the ones who equipped us with the tools to fight it.”

Carle said Harvard’s involvement in the project is “heinous.”

“Harvard is doing whatever it can to enable the status quo – a status quo that is entirely incompatible with a liveable future,” Carle said. “Is that leadership?”

—Staff writer Christie E. Beckley can be reached at christie.beckley@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cbeckley22.

—Staff writer Xinni (Sunshine) Chen can be reached at sunshine.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sunshine_cxn.

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University FinancesHarvard Management CoProtestsSustainabilityGlobal Harvard