THE RECENT announcement of a major oil field the largest found in the United States since 1968 -- underneath the Santa Barbara Channel, off the California coast, brought to mind the earlier history of oil drilling there -- a history eerily different from the recent news. The history we are speaking of is that of the giant Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Something went terribly wrong with a Union Oil underwater well, and oil shot out into the cold waters of the Pacific at the rate of 21,000 gallons a day. This was perhaps the worst place an oil company could have picked to foul the ecology: Santa Barbara was a town of wealthy retirees and vacationers, plus the site of a new campus of the University of California, full of counterculture-oriented kids. For several weeks, dedicated Santa Barbarans nursed oil-covered sea birds and added detergent to the water in a vain attempt to keep the beaches clean. Walter Hickel, the interior secretary just confirmed by a suspicious Senate, came out from Washington with no intention of stopping the drilling; but when he flew over the oil spill, 10 miles by 20 miles of it, he ordered drilling stopped and called for stricter federal regulation of offshore oil operations under federal leases. His actions were a vivid contrast to the laissez-faire attitudes of Union Oil president Fred Hartley and the governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

The Santa Barbara oil spill symbolized the emergence of the environmental movement as a major political force. Americans decided to pay attention to the harm economic activity does to the environment as well as the good things in economic growth. Some began to see economic growth itself as the enemy of the good life. We had a consensus that sometimes we should sacrifice economic growth for the environment.

Now, farther west in the Santa Barbara Channel, Chevron, Phillips and Texaco have discovered huge oil fields, and although there are protests from environmentalists, all signs indicate drilling will proceed. California's new governor, George Deukmejian, is much more hospitable to drilling than Jerry Brown, who protested when Interior Secretary Watt proposed sale of oil leases off California's shores. Since the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1979, there has been pressure for oil companies to find more oil in or under the continental waters of the United States. Results have been disappointing: hopes for the Atlantic continental shelf were not realized, and domestic oil production, despite rapidly rising prices in some years, has declined.

Now there seems to be a consensus that we ought to develop such fields as we can find, even in the Santa Barbara Channel -- a different resolution of the conflict between economic growth and the environment from that of 1969. Who can be sure which is right? Predictions are often wrong: remember that in the years after 1969, American demand for oil rose vastly, though we erred on the side of not drilling; and in the past few years demand has not risen much at all, though we may be deciding to err on the side of production. Economics, geology and aesthetics do not move in tandem. We can say this: the reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill taught us something, and the drilling that seems likely there now will be done with more awareness of and precautions against the dangers in such enterprises than was the case 13 years ago.