No, not that one. It’s an awesome song by an incredible artist.
But we are SOS California. So if we’re talking about natural oil and gas seeps and the Ring of Fire, you can guess that we are talking about…earthquakes.
Yeah… THAT Ring of Fire.
And it’s been in the news a lot lately. There’s been what seems to be an unusual amount of activity in areas that fall under that designation.
But what is it really, and how did it come to be named after a Johnny Cash song?
We all know that the Santa Barbara Channel…well, ALL of California…is an area that is prone to earthquakes. That is because we are on the Ring of Fire. Do you also know that earthquakes can cause big increases in seep flow? No one likes an oil spill, but historical accounts indicate that an oil spill is what has happened during earthquake activity. AND oil and gas production, by reducing seep quantities, can reduce the risk of an increased seep associated with seismic shaking. It all will come full circle (full ring?) back to seeps. Really. Keep reading.
As defined by the National Geographic Society, the Ring of Fire is a string of volcanoes and sites of seismic activity, or earthquakes, around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 90 percent of all earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, as do 75 percent of all active volcanoes on Earth (hence the fire reference). More a 40,000-kilometer (25,000-mile) horseshoe than a ring, it stretches from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand.
To understand why this is such a geologically active area, it helps to know a bit about plate tectonics. As described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Ocean Service, the Earth is in a constant state of change. Earth’s crust, called the lithosphere, consists of 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates. Earth’s land masses move toward and away from each other at an average rate of about 0.6 inch a year. Some regions, such as coastal California, move quite fast in geologic terms — almost 2 inches each year — relative to the more stable interior of the continental United States. At the “seams” where tectonic plates come in contact, the crustal rocks may grind violently against each other, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Ring of Fire is where the Pacific Plate meets many plates, including our own North American Plate.
Since we are part of this Ring of Fire, when it gets active, we get interested…and we check with the US Geological Survey (USGS). In the past month or so, 12 of the 14 major earthquakes have been on the Ring of Fire, including these five on our side of the Pacific: 6.1 – 17km SSE of Matias Romero, Mexico; 7.1 – 1km ESE of Ayutla, Mexico; 3.6 – 5km NW of Westwood, CA and (September 19); 3.3 – 3km NNE of East Foothills, California (September 15); and 8.1 -100km SW of Tres Picos, Mexico (September 8).
The relatively fast movement of the tectonic plates under California explains the frequent earthquakes that occur here. The San Andreas Fault is one of the most active faults on the Ring of Fire. But we don’t have to wait for a “big one” from that famous fault. The Santa Barbara Channel is plenty active on its own. In its Earthquake Track, the USGS reported that the Channel has been the epicenter or in the area of detection for 0 earthquakes today (as I’m writing this blog), 3 earthquakes in the last month, and 57 in the last year. The most significant in the past month was a magnitude 2.6 centered near Oak View and, in the past year, was a magnitude 4.1 centered in Isla Vista.
But what is the connection between seismicity and seeps? Some historical examples include:
- The Santa Barbara Daily News, in its July 4, 1925, edition, reported that W.H. Schuyler, crossing the channel from Santa Cruz Island, noted “Gaping oil fissures crisscross the channel between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands since the great quake of last Monday have been pouring their oil contents into the sea.”
- An increase in natural oil seepage was noted after the 6.5 magnitude Sylmar quake in 1971, and following a small Ventura event.
- An onshore petroleum seep in the Ojai Valley, California developed as a direct result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
This all relates to the Ring of Fire.
A recent report from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) provides another example. Starting in March 1978 and continuing sporadically through July 1978, a swarm of small earthquakes–called microearthquakes– occurred underneath the northeastern end of the Santa Barbara Channel., Santa Barbara residents complained of an unusually large amount of oil and tar on local beaches in July and early August. A magnitude 5.2 earthquake shook the channel on August 13, 1978.
Arco was producing oil and gas and monitoring seep volume via fabric devices that pre-dated the seep tents, which were installed in 1982. They reported an increase in seep volume prior to the 1978 earthquake.
Why would the action of an earthquake release a seemingly increased volume of natural seepage?
Is the shaking enough to open cracks that are deep enough to access the very formations from which the oil is seeping? Not exactly.
Jim Boles is an Emeritus Professor of Geology, Department of Earth Science at UCSB. As he describes in his study entitled Hydrocarbon Production from the South Ellwood Oil Field (Platform Holly) and the Effects on Naturally Occurring Oil and Gas Seeps, seep oil and gas rise from the formations in which they are pooled to the ocean floor through small pores and fractures. The accumulation of the oil and gas gives the hydrocarbon buoyancy to overcome the drag from contact with small openings in the rock (fractures, pores, etc). Seismic shaking serves to help the hydrocarbon overcome the drag forces. The amount of oil and gas that floats toward the seafloor is dependent on the formation pressure as compared to the pressure from a full ocean of water trying to push it back in. Oil and gas production reduces the pressure in the formation, so it takes less pressure from above to hold the oil and gas back, even though oil and gas are still in the cracks and pores.
Seismic motion in the area of an active seep could, in effect, “break the seal” that holds the oil back. Picture a bottle of Coke – it’s a quiet and closed system until shaken. The shaking would loosen any oil and gas sticking to rock in the small fractures, and disrupt the boundary between seawater and oil within those fissures.
So instead of opening cracks, the phenomenon would be more of oil seeping from existing seafloor sources. As the shaking stops, the releases would eventually as well. This would explain increased seepage and an increase before an earthquake occurs.
We have some updated information on earthquake risk along our coast. A study of the Ventura-Pitas Point Fault, published in Geophysical Research Letters, confirms that the structure of this fault brings it closer to the surface than originally thought, which increases the risk of a stronger quake.
As Dr. Boles’ study concluded, there is clear scientific evidence that hydrocarbon production has reduced naturally occurring oil and gas seepage in the surrounding areas. Removal of hydrocarbon reduces the amount of oil and gas available for seepage, and also results in a reduction in the driving force for hydrocarbon escape. Furthermore, the rate of hydrocarbon extraction from producing wells far exceeds the rate of natural hydrocarbon generation, migration, and accumulation. As a result, reservoir fluid pressure is reduced and the rate of seepage decreases due to the pressure reduction.
Since Platform Holly was shut down after the Refugio spill, we’ve been hearing more and more reports from surfers and offshore workers about increased seep and tar accumulation offshore…in the absence of a major earthquake. The bottom line is that active production of the underlying oil and gas reserves reduces the risk of a spontaneous gush oil and gas that could be produced from any seismic shaking. Platform Holly has not been decommissioned yet. Can we afford to let this opportunity to protect our offshore and coastal environment from chronic pollution – and from a significant release that could come from a seismic event?
There are many ways to be prepared.
At least seep gases in the Barbara Channel are.
Well, you can tell by now that this is one of our SOS California “Isn’t the English language fun?” blogs. But stay with us – you’re about to learn something very interesting about how the offshore oil and gas industry has reduced pollution in Santa Barbara County.
Why Do We Need to Clean Up Oil Seeps?
Was that their intent? Perhaps not. But all companies involved in industrial processes make an effort to provide a service while minimally impacting the environment. They are also legally bound to do so. But, with our unusual petroleum geology in the Santa Barbara Channel, offshore oil producers are reducing pollution by providing an affordable resource – by reducing the natural seeps.
The influx of gases to the atmosphere from natural oil and gas seeps can impact air pollutant levels. A 2015 study by Peltonen and Boles showed that 3 to 7 million cubic feet of gases are released each day from the ocean’s surface in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore from Coal Oil Point. This represents the single largest source of air pollution in Santa Barbara County, greater than that of all vehicle traffic combined. These gases, when exposed to sunlight, form the air pollutants that can negatively affect our health. Of particular concern is ozone, which can damage our lungs.
So it stands to reason that reducing the amount of gas emitted from natural seeps would decrease the amount of ozone flowing into our lungs. Studies have shown that oil and gas production reduces seepage. The most distinct evidence comes from the history of the seep tents.
Not those kind of tents! Let us explain….
How Oil Seep Tents Help Reduce Pollution
The Seep Containment Project was developed in 1982 by ARCO and several other partners to capture the large concentrations of naturally seeping gas. The photo shows one of the tents. Two of these 50-foot high steel pyramids (which weigh 900,000 pounds each and measure 100 feet by 100 feet) were positioned on the ocean floor over the strongest seep within the company’s lease. They were originally placed to collect gas as a mitigation for emissions. However, they have provided an incredible opportunity to monitor the effects of oil production on the quantity of natural gas being released by the seeps.
NoozHawk published an article recently, in response to a reader question. According to their interview with UCSB researchers, “Captured gas is sent ashore through a sea floor pipeline for commercial sale, and oil is periodically removed at the tents.”
Oil Seep Tents in Santa Barbara Need Repairs to Keep Helping
NoozHawk also spoke with California state government experts. According to California State Lands Commission spokeswoman Sheri Pemberton, the two seep tents have not been in service in recent years because of reduced seep activity and some degradation.
The existing leases, properties, and associated facilities for the oil and gas operations offshore from Goleta that include Platform Holly and the seep tents are owned and operated by Venoco, Inc. (Venoco). Venoco has declared bankruptcy, stopped operations at Platform Holly, and quitclaimed its South Ellwood Field leases back to the state. Ms. Pemberton said that the seep tents will be addressed as part of the decommissioning plan and environmental impact report.
These structures have been sitting on the ocean floor for 35 years. Anyone who has seen a photo of a shipwreck can imagine that there has been some breakdown of materials and, even with maintenance, coverage by organisms. The challenges of dealing with degraded materials could certainly add to the cost of decommissioning. There has been some discussion about allowing the tents to remain in place – whether that becomes a viable alternative remains to be seen.
It is important to note that, in the NoozHawk interview, Ms. Pemberton stated the following: “Empiric evidence suggests that seep activity will continue to increase in the immediate area because production ceased.” Have to put that one in bold.
According to Poltonen and Boles, and the studies they reviewed, decades of production led to significant reduction in reservoir pressure ultimately resulting in the cessation of seep activity measured within the tents in late 2013. Now here’s the real breath of fresh air. The study showed that Platform Holly had resulted in significant improvement to local air quality. At peak, the tents captured over 150 million cubic feet of seeping gas per day. This is equal to the amount of air pollution associated with tens of thousands of automobiles. To date the seep tents have captured 6 billion cubic feet of gas.
Talk about intense!
Have a Crude (Oil Product) Day!
Can you imagine the reaction if this were your daily greeting?
But, in reality, most of us are already having crude oil products all the time in our day to day. Because, when refined, crude oil is the basis for many of our life’s conveniences…and necessities.
The refining process is important, of course, because crude oil is…well, you get the idea. (Gotta have a little fun!)
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), crude oil and other liquids produced from fossil fuels are refined into petroleum products that people use for many different purposes. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are also used as petroleum products, mainly in mixtures with gasoline and diesel fuel. The United States consumes more energy from petroleum than from any other energy source. In 2015, total U.S. petroleum consumption was about 19 million barrels per day (b/d), the equivalent of about 36 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States. We use petroleum products to propel vehicles, heat buildings, and to produce electricity. The petrochemical industry uses petroleum as a raw material (a feedstock) to make products such as plastics, polyurethane, solvents, and hundreds of other intermediate and end-user goods.
When Anna Wegis was an engineering student at University of Southern California (USC) in 2001, she wrote an article entitled A World of Petroleum for Illumin, the school’s engineering journal. She described the morning routine of a typical student:
The student is awakened by a petroleum product (her alarm clock), is wearing petroleum (her pajamas), and uses petroleum to turn on the light (the light switch). She has a convenient shower thanks to petroleum (the water pipes and shower curtain), washes her hair with petroleum (shampoo), and then applies petroleum to make her skin soft (lotion). Next, the student inserts soft contact lenses and uses a contact lens case, hair curlers, lipstick, deodorant, perfume, a comb, and toothpaste, all of which are petrochemical products. During the hour, she also watched the television, which is made in part from petroleum. On the way to school, she drove in petroleum (the body of her sports-car) and used petroleum to get there (fuel).
In the interests of honest reporting, there has been some pushback on the use of crude oil products since 2001, when this was published. But how different do you think this routine, and the use of crude oil products, is in 2017?
We all know about gasoline. We also all know that there are those who would prefer that their cars be powered by something other than gasoline. The technologies for vehicle propulsion are advancing, with improvements in electric vehicles and the development of a hydrogen-based system. But is gasoline the only crude oil product that is used in cars? Are the ones that claim to be hydrocarbon-free really that way if they can’t function without some form of crude oil product?
As Chris Woodyard wrote in an article for USA Today entitled Motor oil makers get ready for the electric-car age, “…any new-age energy saving device that rotates, turns or spins is going to need grease. Think windmills. For another, automakers are demanding new kinds of lubricants as their high-tech fuel-saving efforts evolve.”
So, that make sense, that crude oil products would still be used in vehicles and machinery (including alternative energy machinery). What else is there? The barrel graphic, based on US Department of Energy (DOE) data, shows how the rest is used. 18% goes to the 6,000 other products.
An article entitled The Truth About Petrolatum in the Canadian magazine Best Health reviews the benefits of crude oil products in the health and beauty industry and addresses the concerns. As the article states, chemist Robert Chesebrough started the process of distilling and cleaning the thick gel found on oil wells in the 1850s. By 1870, petroleum jelly (also called petrolatum) in the form of Vaseline was being sold in the United States. While some beauty companies are promoting petrolatum alternatives, other manufacturers swear by its ability to moisturize and heal. Petrolatum used in cosmetic and personal care products sold in Canada is also a highly refined grade and must meet all of the standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Says Paul Hughes, technical manager for Unilever Canada, maker of Vaseline, ‘Some people are creating fear among consumers by telling only part of the story.’
Plastics are also a crude oil product and, according to the American Chemistry Council, a very beneficial one. In medicine, sterile plastic packaging and disposable medical items-have helped prevent countless infections, one of the world’s leading causes of death. And, being strong and lightweight, plastics enable us to do more with less. Plastic packaging helps to dramatically extend the shelf life of fresh foods and beverages while allowing us to ship more product with less packaging material-reducing both food and packaging waste. Plastic insulation, sealants, and other building products are making our homes significantly more energy efficient, while reducing costs for heating and cooling. And lightweight plastics in cars can dramatically increase miles per gallon, saving drivers money at the pump.
This being California, we can’t forget to mention surfboards. You know our USC student picked up one at the end of the day. According to the DOE, almost all surfboards are made from fossil fuel-derived polyurethane foam (though researchers are testing foam from algae).
But be sure to dispose of plastics correctly. Use that recycle bin: it’s shown in the graphic below…with other crude oil products.
Yes…it’s an SOS California blog. You know what we’re talking about when we say BLACK GOLD. We’re talking about…license plates.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) instituted a program to distribute Legacy License Plates. Legislation introduced the California Legacy License Plate program offering vehicle owners the opportunity to purchase replicas of California license plates similar to those issued in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Only the 1960s plate reached the required 7,500 minimum orders before January 1, 2015. The Press Release in June 2015 stated that the plates were released so, “California drivers can relive those nostalgic memories from the 1960s with Legacy License Plates.”
1960s California nostalgia…how fun! Surfing, woodies, Beach Boys…what great memories and the pure definition of California culture for the rest of the country and even the world. But is that the full history of the black and gold license plate? How did license plates come to include color schemes, and how did California become associated with black and gold?
A Los Angeles Magazine article provides some background. New York was the first state to require automobiles have license plates, beginning in 1901. At the time, individual owners were expected to make their own plates. In 1956, the U.S. government came to an agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association that fixed the size for license plates for automobiles. From 1963 to 1969, California-issued license plates featured gold numbers on a black non-reflective paint with an embossed state name.
Gary Richards, the author of an article about the plate’s return in The Mercury News, said that these retro plates are popular, “Because they look so cool. For me, they recall the fun days of watching Edd Byrnes play “Cookie,” a protégé to private eye Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in “77 Sunset Strip.” That was a weekly must-watch when I was a kid.”
The resurrection of legacy plates was first introduced by CA Assemblyman Mike Gatto. He was quoted in Newswire as saying “Aside from not salting our roads, California doesn’t often do much for automobile enthusiasts. This is an easy way for the state to enable everyone from the backyard restorer to the nostalgic, to the purchaser of a retro-styled automobile to add that extra bit of detail for those of us who appreciate the classic era of automobile design.”
Mr Gatto’s legislative director Aaron Moreno told Hemmings Daily that “The molds were just sitting there in Folsom prison. And when the people at the prison heard we were trying to get this program started, they dusted the molds off and saw that they could still be used.”
All this is very interesting, but what about the connection to California’s other Black Gold? Well, that’s turning out to be a much more difficult thing to pin down. Could it be that Californians are now hesitant to admit that a part of their history celebrated the importance of oil and gas production?
Economic Benefits of Oil
Oil and gas production surely is California’s black gold. The Paleontological Research Institution points out that many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Like oil reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, a hint of what lay beneath the surface could be seen in the many above ground oil seeps. These seeps had been known by Native Americans for thousands of years. In 1900, the state of California produced 4 million barrels. In 1910, this had jumped to 77 million barrels. In spite of this increased production, many of the fields were beginning to see slowdowns in their production rates in the late 1910’s, and Californians wondered if their oil boom was reaching an end. But before that would happen, 3 major fields were discovered in rapid succession – Huntington Beach (1920), Santa Fe Springs (1921), and the biggest of them all, the Signal Hill, or Long Beach, Field in 1921.
Because of the abundance of this natural resource, Black Gold in California has meant literally…gold. Oil exploration and production has, throughout our history, provided funding for so many aspects of the lifestyle we enjoy. To quote Jeff Wing, from his article in the Sentinel where he points out that oil money funded Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, “There is oil money all over the place driving scientific discovery and public curiosity about the larger world. Think of it as a different kind of spill.” The spill he discusses in the March 10th issue of the Sentinel started with Alice Keck Park’s father, William Myron Keck, who was the founder of Superior Oil Company. You might notice that most National Public Radio (NPR) programs begin by acknowledging funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation. Interesting. Other beneficiaries include the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Moana Key, Hawaii.
Positive Outcomes of Oil Production in California
But we’re keeping it local. Revenues from oil and gas produced in Santa Barbara County were even used to build – the Santa Barbara County Courthouse!! According to the National Park Service, fortuitous petroleum strikes occurred at Ellwood along the coastline of southern Santa Barbara County in 1928. Tax revenues from the oil-bearing lands were transferred to the courthouse fund allowing construction to proceed nonstop until completion in March 1929.
Then there is the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF), administered by the County of Santa Barbara. The County established CREF in 1987 to consolidate permit conditions for each of the County-approved offshore oil and gas projects, namely the Point Arguello, Santa Ynez Unit, Point Pedernales, Gaviota Terminal, and Molino Gas projects. Each project pays into CREF as project mitigation, and the County awards grants to enhance coastal aesthetics, coastal recreation, coastal tourism, and environmentally sensitive coastal resources. Santa Barbara County has awarded 297 grants for a total of approximately $22.4 million for projects, as follows:
• A little less than half: to acquire coastal properties or conservation easements. For example, CREF helped purchase key bluff-top properties, such as the Carpinteria Bluffs, the Douglas property in the city of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Shores in Ellwood, and Point Sal near Guadalupe. It also helped to acquire properties that protect environmentally sensitive coastal habitats, such as Burton Mesa chaparral near Lompoc, Monarch butterfly foraging habitat in Ellwood, and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh.
• The second largest amount: to develop or improve coastal parks and other coastal-related facilities such as the Cabrillo Aquarium near Lompoc, the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, and the Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach.
Why are Legacy Plates Black and Gold?
So it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the state had honored this history in the color scheme of the Black Gold license plate, and celebrated the return of this legacy. A Santa Barbara local told us, “I believe California in the 50s came out with the black and gold because of the OIL we have–Black Gold!–which has built our state and communities. The new plates are very popular, you see them everywhere and they look nice. But I wonder if any of these people with the new plates actually like local oil production and realize they’re acknowledging its value in this way?”
What an excellent question! Hey blog readers… what do you know about the Black Gold plates? Where are our classic car enthusiasts? We know you follow this topic, especially for your favorite-era vehicles. How about all you surfers, even those who did not grow up listening to the Beach Boys? We would LOVE to hear from all of you about California’s black gold…send us your stories!
With regard to Santa Barbara’s natural seeps, we at SOS think it’s too bad they don’t provide license to drill.
Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Energy | All Aboard
Be it planes, trains, or automobiles… or boats or buses… all aboard is the universal cry this summer travel season. The one thing these modes of transportation have in common? They all need energy to run.
We are at a time in our energy evolution when there are options. Wind, solar, and the more recently developing wave energy are all becoming more viable options. To some they are preferable, because of concerns about carbon. But…
Are we really the point where we can supply all of our energy needs from just renewables?
A June 21 article in The New York Times entitled Traditional Sources of Energy Have Role in Renewable Future discusses this issue. The article’s author, Eduardo Porter, reports on two recent studies – one from 2015 that states that the US could be powered by 100 percent wind, wave and solar (WWS) by 2050, and the just-published response that asserts that we will need all energy sources for much longer.
We are certainly grappling with these issues locally.
Mr. Porter of the NY Times pointed out that, for too long, climate advocacy and policy have been infected by a hope that the energy transformation before us can be achieved deeply and virtuously – in harmony with nature. But the transformation is very likely to be costly. And though sun, wind, and water are likely to account for a much larger share of the nation’s energy supply, less palatable technologies are likely to play a part.
The photo below is of the Block Island Wind Farm, the Deepwater Wind project in the Atlantic Ocean offshore from Block Island, New York. Does this really meet the “harmony with nature” test? But I digress…
Mr. Porter’s comments describe Santa Barbara so well. But in Santa Barbara, the perceived “less palatable” energy source is the one that is improving the environment. Which brings us to Venoco.
In an opinion piece in the Santa Barbara News Press of Sunday June 25, Goleta resident Hector Mon describes how this issue is playing out in our own community. He states that a lack of ingenuity in how to balance economic and environmental concerns is “really stacking up.” He points out that many locals are happy about the prospect of Platform Holly’s decommissioning. But, as he says, ”It now looks like getting rid of Holly won’t be so simple. It is estimated that the cost of its decommissioning will exceed $100 million and the state is questioning its ability to foot the bill.” While there have been objections to the industrial offshore structure and oil and gas in general, he points out that, “By the same token, Holly and Venoco also provided locals with good jobs and paid hefty taxes to local and state governments. It has even been argued that it helped reduce natural oil seepage and made beaches more enjoyable.”
Renewable Vs Nonrenewable Energy Study Comparison
This real-world scenario provides on interesting example of the issues brought up by the modeling and analyses of the two conflicting studies. Both were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The first study, entitled Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes is by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. His study asserts that it would be eminently feasible to power the American economy by midcentury almost entirely with energy from wind, sun, and water. What’s more, he believes it would be cheaper than running on fossil fuels.
The researchers of the responding study (a group of 21, from varying disciplines, led by Christopher Clack, chief executive of the grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy), are of the opinion that relying on 100 percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could make climate mitigation more difficult and more expensive than it needs to be. Their study, entitled Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar shows that it is important to understand the distinction between physical possibility and feasibility in the real world.
Energy Consumption Projections in the United States
In evaluating our energy future, SOS consults data projections and analyses by a number of sources, but particularly those generated by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).Their Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) is published pursuant to the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, which requires the EIA Administrator to prepare annual reports on trends and projections for energy use and supply. The projections are based on their Reference Case (without variables) and compare historic and likely future energy consumption by source, as shown in the graph below.
According to the 2017 AEO, natural gas production accounts for nearly 40 percent of US energy production by 2040. Since 2005, technologies to more efficiently produce natural gas from shale and tight formations have driven prices down, spurring growth in consumption and net exports. Near-term production growth is supported by large, capital-intensive projects, such as new liquefaction export terminals and petrochemical plants, built in response to low natural gas prices. US natural gas consumption is expected to increase during much of the projection period.
In an article in NGI’s Daly Price Index, entitled NatGas Prospects Burn Bright in EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2017, EIA administrator was quoted as saying, “Natural gas production, we think, is actually going to go up quite a bit, with relatively low and stable prices, so that’s going to support higher levels of domestic consumption, especially in the electric power and industrial sectors, where we think there will be quite a bit of natural gas use,” EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski said in Washington, DC.
As for renewables, non-hydroelectric renewable energy production grows, reflecting cost reductions and existing policies at the federal and state level that promote the use of wind and solar energy. In the electric power sector, coal-fired plants are replaced primarily with new natural gas, solar, and wind capacity, which reduces electricity-related CO2 emissions. Notice that natural gas is still in this mix.
What’s the Most Efficient Source of Energy?
As EIA has stated, though, even as renewables rise, fossil fuels continue to dominate the US energy mix. Fossil fuels have provided more than 80 percent of total US energy consumption for more than 100 years. In 2016, fossil fuels accounted for 81 percent of total US energy consumption, the lowest fossil fuel share in the past century. In 2016, the renewable share of energy consumption in the United States was 10.5 percent. The greatest growth in renewables over the past decade has been in solar and wind electricity generation. EIA projects that they will continue to grow, as the graph shows, but to nowhere near the levels predicted by Dr. Jacobsen.
SOS has been educating the public on the idea that changing the nation’s primary energy source is a long-term process, and that the benefits of oil and gas exploration in Santa Barbara in particular are stronger than other locations because of the reduction in seep pollution. Our experience tells us that a significant technological breakthrough in the coming years could, by 2040/2050, provide us with a source of clean energy that far surpasses WWS – and that offshore oil production could be our energy bridge in the meantime.
So as Holly fades into the sunset… can we agree that “All Aboard” is the best way to move toward a secure energy future?
Raise in California Gas Tax | NOPE
Well, Grumpy Cat doesn’t like anything.
But according to a poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (Berkeley IGS), the majority of voters agree with Grumpy Cat – at least on the subject of the newly passed California state gas tax.
But first –what gas tax? And what is a Berkeley IGS?
According to the state’s website, SB 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, invests $52.4 billion over the next decade to fix roads, freeways and bridges in communities across California and put more dollars toward transit and safety. We know that we have infrastructure issues. So what do Californians say?
The way to find out is to ask the Berkeley IGS. The IGS Poll is a periodic survey of California public opinion on important matters of politics, public policy, and public issues. The poll, which is disseminated widely, seeks to provide a broad measure of contemporary public opinion, and to generate data for subsequent scholarly analysis.
That’s what makes the recent poll so interesting. In a state that tends to approve of things like gas taxes, Mark DiCamillo, the Director of the Berkeley IGS reports that a majority of voters oppose the state’s new gas tax law, 39% strongly. He explains the process:
Registered voters in the latest Berkeley IGS Poll were read a summary of the new law and asked whether they favored or opposed it. The results indicate that opponents of the new law outnumber supporters by twenty-three points, 58% to 35%. In addition, nearly three times as many voters strongly oppose the law (39%) as are strongly supportive (14%). Opposition is broad-based and includes large majorities of Republicans and No Party Preference voters, political conservatives and moderates, voters in all major regions of the state other than the Bay Area, all major races and ethnic subgroups, men and women, and all age categories over 30.
And one cat.
Christopher Cadelago of the Sacramento Bee summarized the poll results in graphic form. He spoke directly with the aforementioned poll director, who said that the bottom line is that people don’t like to have their taxes increased. Mr. DiCamillo recalled how the late pollster Mervin Field, who chronicled public opinion for decades in California, was fond of saying that the pocketbook nerve is the most sensitive political nerve in a person’s body.
Reasons for Increased California Gas Tax
First – what are excise taxes and how are they applied to fuels? The Internal Revenue Service defines excise taxes as those paid when purchases are made on a specific good, such as gasoline. Excise taxes are often included in the price of the product. The State of California collects a base excise tax on each gallon of gasoline. In addition, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Board of Equalization (BOE) annually sets a variable excise tax on gasoline. The BOE sets the rate considering both gasoline price and quantity sold, in an effort to mimic a sales tax.
So what are the increases? The LA Times reports that the legislation would raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, bringing it to 30 cents. Another variable excise tax would be set at 17 cents. The excise tax on diesel fuel would jump 20 cents per gallon and the sales tax on diesel would go up 4 percentage points. Electric cars would pay a $100 annual fee. The package also creates a new, annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.
But we at SOS like to present both sides. What are those who approve of this approach to infrastructure improvements saying? The San Diego Union Tribune reported on supporters of the bill, who generally have pointed to the need to dramatically upgrade California’s transportation infrastructure. Reporter Rob Nikolewski spoke with the head of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce who estimated that each dollar spent on roads, highway and bridge improvements results in $5.20 in lower car repairs and road maintenance costs while improving fuel consumption and road safety. Analysis of the bill in Sacramento said rough roads result in each driver in California spending about $700 a year in extra vehicle repairs.
But isn’t the Current Gas Price in California High Enough?
It is common knowledge that Californians pay more at the pump, on average, than residents in most other states. The Santa Barbara News Press provides gasbuddy data on Santa Barbara gas prices compared to the national average. As of Friday June 16, 2017, Santa Barbara’s lowest price was $2.71 compared to the national average of $2.34 for regular. Tom Scott, Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business/California told the Pasadena Star-News that working families and low-wage workers will be hit the hardest when they are forced to pay more for gasoline, goods and services. And he pointed out that, “the 50-cent-per-hour pay bump minimum wage workers got with SB 3 last year will instantly be erased by the tax increases in SB 1. And next year they’re supposed to be getting another 50 cents. Well, that’s gone too.”
Other opponents of the tax increase agree that there is a disproportionate financial impact on low-wage earners. LA Times reported that Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) said the tax hikes will hurt small businesses and low-income families, who he said would have to choose between buying gas or food. “Are you really going to increase taxes on the families who are struggling in this state every single day?” Stone asked. These issues of social justice are important to highlight with regard to any costs to be incurred by the general public as a result of any project (check out that gas pump!).
A potential complication, with gas price impacts, could be the upcoming debate on the renewal of the cap-and-trade program. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review, cap-and-trade systems are market-based mechanisms that allow companies to bid on a limited number of allowances for producing greenhouse gases, which tick down over time to lower total emissions. Under the program that first went into effect in 2013, California holds quarterly auctions for large power plants, factories, and fuel distributors with a rising price floor. SB 1 included a 12-cent hike in the base excise tax on gasoline. Extending the cap-and-trade program could mean an additional gasoline price increase of between 24 and 73 cents per gallon by 2031, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
An LA Times report on cap-and-trade quoted Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Riverside) also noted financial impacts for those in her district. She said, “A lot of my families in the district do have to drive long distances to work, it’s hard for my district to get access to clean vehicles” that require less gas.
How Oil Production Can Help
Of course, one way to defray costs of infrastructure improvements, while reducing greenhouse gasses, would be offshore oil production. Santa Barbara County alone is looking at a loss of $74 million with an estimated 3-year shutdown of the Plains All-American Pipeline, according to California Economic Forecast Director Mark Schneipp. With that loss, the County may try to pursue funding elsewhere – perhaps the state? And reducing natural seeps by oil production has been shown, offshore Santa Barbara, to reduce the natural seeps’ production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Hmm…a funding source that also reduces greenhouse gasses – but doesn’t impose burdens on the people of the state? Don’t think a gas tax meets all of those requirements.
Hey – Grumpy was right!
Platform Holly Shutdown | Define Victory
It was a sad day for Santa Barbara County when the Plains All American Pipeline leaked oil into the coastal waters. According to the official incident report from the Refugio Response Joint Information Center, on May 19, 2015 Plains Pipeline Line 901 leaked and spilled approximately 101,000 to 140,000 gallons of oil, with an estimated 21,000 gallons reaching the ocean near Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California. Things like that should not happen. It was disturbing to find oil in our beautiful Santa Barbara Channel. Why, look at that photo! Gives you chills…
Oh wait – you thought that photo was from the Refugio spill? Oh no – that oil is from natural oil seeps. The photo is from a US Geological Survey (USGS) article about a 2008 appearance of numerous globs such as these in Southern California waters. As they stated, “virtually all the tar balls that wash up on the California coast come from natural seeps of oil and tar.”
According to the National Research Council (NRC) of the US National Academy of Sciences, natural seeps are the highest contributors of petroleum hydrocarbons to North American marine environment: 62% from natural oil seeps versus 1% from extraction. The second largest marine oil seeps in the world (the largest in the Western Hemisphere) lie in the Santa Barbara Channel. Peer-reviewed published reports document the connection between existing Santa Barbara offshore oil production and natural seep pollution reductions over the last 20 years and the larger natural seep pollution reduction potential through expanded offshore oil and gas production.
Environmental Disaster in Slow Motion
We at SOS California support offshore oil and gas production because of those peer-reviewed reports that show the benefit to our coastal and offshore environment from the reduction in natural oil and gas seeps. But the day of the spill was a sad day for us too. Why? Because pollution is pollution, whether it’s from a quick release event such as a spill, or from the chronic pollution that characterizes a natural oil and gas seep. This is why we call seeps an environmental disaster happening in slow motion.
Do you see the oil in that wave shot? That oil’s not from a spill either. The photo, from an EdHat article written by a local surfer, shows natural seep oil in the Santa Barbara Channel off Coal Oil Point.
The saddest part of this turn of events for SOS is the long-term repercussions to the operators. Venoco’s Platform Holly, like all such facilities that move oil through the Santa Barbara County section of the Plains All American Pipeline, has been shut down since the spill occurred. The company tried to continue operations by requesting a permit to truck oil until the pipeline is repaired. A temporary permit to clear stored oil was approved but no long-term solution was accepted. Despite an attempt at restructuring, Venoco declared bankruptcy, and is closing operations. Local anti-oil groups declared a victory. But closing oil production not only opens the door for further seep pollution (as evidenced by a natural seep slick off Goleta a few months after the spill) but also begs the question: How do YOU define victory?
NoozHawk offered this quote from Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center: “We are pleased that Venoco’s aging oil facilities will be removed, and the area restored to its natural condition…This action is long overdue and a huge victory for our community.” We at SOS think that declaring victory at the departure of Venoco, with the loss of jobs of our neighbors and friends, is short-sighted at best.
Negative Impact of Platform Holly Shutdown
First issue is, of course, the potential environmental impact of ceasing oil production. As previously mentioned, an oil sheen was detected in the Santa Barbara Channel in July 2015, about 2 months after the pipeline shutdown. KSBY’s Dan Shadwell interviewed Capt. Dave Zaniboni of Santa Barbara County Fire, who stated that the post-overflight determination by the Coast Guard was that the sheen was from natural seepage. Anchor Jeanette Trompeter went so far as to mention that some additional seepage could be expected since area platforms had been shut down since the pipeline spill. Upon hearing of the Venoco April 2017 announcement, several local offshore workers and fishermen said that they expect the seeps to get much worse, especially since there are already reports of increased seepage near Platform Holly. Even one of our local pundits weighed in, anticipating a return to the heavy beach tar he experienced in his childhood, pre-Platform Holly days.
Economic Impact of Venoco’s Bankruptcy
The economic impact of closing off access to an important energy resource could also be substantial. The point that may be lost on those who are celebrating Venoco’s announcement is that oil companies were developing an oil and gas resource that belongs to…us. We all, as taxpayers, are the owners of the offshore oil and gas leases, not the oil companies. Did you know that you are an owner of such a valuable resource? Congratulations!
The oil companies lease the opportunity to develop the resources for us. The lease sales are managed by the state or federal government, depending on lease location. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leases are more than 3 miles offshore, and managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). As the agency states, “The bureau is responsible for stewardship of U.S. OCS energy and mineral resources, as well as protecting the environment that development of those resources may impact. The resources we manage belong to the American people and future generations of Americans; wise use of and fair return for these resources are foremost in our management efforts.” The California State Lands Commission is responsible for oil and gas leasing in state waters, and strives “to be effective in protecting California’s natural resources and ensuring sustainable development and appropriate use of public trust lands and resources.“
Venoco has been a very responsible operator, and there is significant economic impact in lost taxes from the shut-down of production at Platform Holly and the sale of other assets. An analysis soon after the spill by California Economic Forecast Director Mark Schneipp showed that, if Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 were to remain dormant over the next three years as projected, Santa Barbara County could lose an estimated $74 million.
Santa Barbara County Impact
The county would potentially miss out on about $37 million in property taxes, 155 jobs, $32 million in worker income, and $5 million in federal royalties. Santa Barbara County public schools would miss out an estimated $24 million over a three-year period, the Santa Barbara County General Fund wouldn’t receive around $8 million and other public services would lose out on about $6.3 million. Venoco’s bankruptcy has begun the fulfillment of these projections. What will happen with the operators who are left?
You’ve caught on, so yes…the brown pelican shown was oiled by natural seeps. The photo is from a 2015 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel highlighting the work of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). The article also reported on a new study by the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center on the risks of bird oiling from natural seeps. Before working on the study, Laird Henkel, the center’s director, acknowledged “I didn’t know much about these natural oil seeps in California. We are guessing that more than 1,000 seabirds are oiled each year by this natural source of oil.” Facing a future of even more oiling without Platform Holly around to reduce natural seeps, even this brown pelican seems to be saying…
Now, Define Victory
Go ahead…just try to tell me how YOU define victory.
Tell us too. Venoco, in particular, has shown an incredible commitment to the community. Their Community Partnership program has been a well-known source of needed funding for many of our non-profits. But these are hard-working, intelligent people have always shown a commitment to doing the best job they could under occasionally challenging circumstances. They all are our neighbors, friends…and partners in a better Santa Barbara. We wish them good luck in their next endeavors…we all should.
How Oil is Formed | Even Deeper Thoughts
We at SOS California were thrilled when, in the Green Issue of DEEP, David Pu’u talked about the omnipresent natural oil and gas in the Santa Barbara Channel. DEEP is a surfer magazine. Oil seeps have been written about before by surfers, who deal with oiled boards and health issues related to oil in the water.
But Mr. Pu’u went a little bit farther. He highlighted research that SOS has been presenting to the public about for our almost 10 years as a non-profit – that offshore oil and gas production has been shown to reduce the quantities of natural oil and gas seeps…and improve our local environment. Heck, it’s our mission to educate the public on this.
Yes Mr. Pu’u went farther…and he also went deeper. He provided a great summary of how oil becomes oil, and how it gets into formations. He spoke about die-offs of animals that then mixed with sediments. That layer was then folded into formations during cataclysmic events.
I know someone who read this, and mentioned that he hadn’t known that this was how crude oil got into offshore formations. I’m thinking he’s not the only one, so let’s take this opportunity to flesh this out a little.
As always… pun intended.
There is a popular belief that die-offs of dinosaurs brought us the oil we have today. Some of this thinking came from the discovery that a large asteroid called Chicxulub had impacted the Gulf of Mexico and led to the mass dinosaur die-off. It seems that the dinosaurs did not become oil after the impact. The vast oil reserves that were already part of the Gulf of Mexico created a soot that lead to the extinction. The Conversation reported on a study by Kunio Kaiho and colleagues published in the journal Scientific Reports that indicates that, as they say, it may have been the unlucky coincidence of a huge oil field and a giant asteroid impact that made Chicxulub so deadly. And there is a certain irony in the possibility that the same oil that did in the dinosaurs is now being used to run our own civilization. So if not from dinosaurs, where’d the oil come from?
How is Oil Formed?
In fact, oil is formed by tiny bacteria. Millions of years ago, microscopic sea plants and animals died and were buried on the ocean floor. As time passed, they were buried deeper and deeper under layers of silt and sand. The enormous heat and pressure caused by these depths turned these creatures into oil and gas.
You may be surprised to learn that–according to the best theories currently available– microscopic bacteria, and not house-sized dinosaurs, produced today’s oil reserves. Single-celled bacteria evolved in the earth’s oceans about three billion years ago, and were pretty much the only life form on the planet until about 600 million years ago…As tiny as these individual bacteria were, bacterial colonies, or “mats,” grew to truly massive proportions (we’re talking thousands, or even millions, of tons for an extended bacterial colony, compared to 100 tons or so for the biggest dinosaur that ever lived, Argentinosaurus)….Of course, individual bacteria don’t live forever; their life spans can be measured in days, hours, or even minutes…As the members of these massive colonies died off, by the trillions, they sunk to the bottom of the sea and were gradually covered by accumulating sediments. Over the ensuing millions of years, these layers of sediment grew heavier and heavier, until the dead bacteria trapped beneath were “cooked” by the pressure and temperature into a stew of liquid hydrocarbons. This is the reason the world’s largest oil reserves are located thousands of feet underground, and not readily available on the earth’s surface in the form of lakes or rivers.
Scientists from the Paleontological Research Institution agree.
In spite of some popular misconceptions, oil doesn’t come from dead dinosaurs. In fact, most scientists agree that oil comes from creatures the size of a pinhead. These one-celled creatures, known as diatoms, aren’t really plants, but share one very important characteristic with them – they take light from the sun and convert it into energy. (Humans can’t do this – this is why you have to eat your veggies!)
Oh boy – a lecture on veggies. Fine.
As you probably are aware, the events we’re discussing here occurred over millions of years, during periods defined by the geologic time scale. According to Oil On My Shoes, in their Introduction to Petroleum Geology, the Absolute Geologic Time Scale is the way geologists have broken down geologic time into sections, each with an interesting and fascinating name, and each containing a package of rocks deposited during a certain time period….all over the world. A process called “Isotopic Dating”, in which the decay rates of certain radioactive materials are established and measured, is used as a virtual clock to calculate the ages of various rocks.
For example, many of you have heard of the Jurassic – the age of the dinosaurs. Jurassic rocks were formed 138 to 205 million years ago. Petroleum geologists are mainly interested in rocks from the Mesozoic and Paleozoic Eras. This is because almost all of the oil and gas found so far is contained within these rocks. These rocks are 60 to 600 million years old, approximately.
The three images in this blog illustrate the stages of oil formation over the geologic time scale. The first image at the top represents how the ocean looked 300 to 400 million years ago, during the Paleozoic era. According to Learning Geology, tiny sea plants and animals died and were buried on the ocean floor. Over time, they were buried with silt and sand. Over millions of years, the remains were buried deeper and deeper. During the Mesozoic era, around 50 to 100 million years ago as shown in the second image, the enormous heat and pressure turned these creatures into oil and gas. As shown in the final image, today we drill down through layers of sand, silt, and rock to reach the rock formations that contain oil and gas deposits.
So how does oil seep out if it’s locked into rock formations? Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was quoted by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) as saying that the area around Santa Barbara is very geologically active, because of the movement of the San Andreas and other faults. Extensive faulting or rupturing in the Earth allows oil and gas from subterranean reservoirs to seep up to the seafloor and ultimately into the ocean and to the atmosphere.
AOGHS goes on to quote Drew Thornley’s Energy and the Environment: Myths & Facts, which states that “Ironically, research shows that drilling can actually reduce natural seepage, as it relieves the pressure that drives oil and gas up from ocean floors and into ocean waters.”
Now THAT’S deep!
You have to be a deep thinker to understand the complex world of oil and gas. And a local magazine named DEEP went there, in their recent Green Issue.
DEEP Magazine’s Take on Natural Oil Seeps
DEEP is a surf magazine. As they describe themselves, the magazine “shares the stories of our local California Central Coast surfers, artists, shapers and photographers!” We know how impacted surfers are by natural oil seeps. But many surfers are also connected to organizations that are against oil drilling. So why are we at SOS California giving this magazine some free publicity?
How can you not applaud a magazine that’s willing to publish an article about natural oil seeps…talk about the fact that offshore oil production has been shown to reduce seep emissions…AND call that seepage what it is: pollution. In the GREEN issue.
In his article entitled Understanding Oil Pollution: A Primer on the Santa Barbara Channel, David Pu’u kicks off the discussion with the caption on his photo of Rincon Point. He says, “Surfers know the hassle of oily water all too well.” The way he ends it is even more striking for those of us who understand how this phenomenon impacts our coast and offshore environment. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
About the Author: David Pu’u
First let’s introduce you to the article’s author. As you can see from his website, David Pu’u was raised in Santa Barbara CA. A former career athlete, craftsman, and corporate CEO, he terminated a twenty year career in the Surf Industry to pursue Photography and Cinematography in 1996.
As Mr. Pu’u states, “Pollution, loosely defined, is a resource out of place.” The radar image on the left is a European Remote Sensing 1 satellite radar image depicting natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel off Coal Oil Point, California, from Jan. 13, 1996. It was shown in the Marine Pollution section of materials produced by the Science Education through Earth Observation for High Schools (SEOS) Project. It shows starkly that the resource that we have been using for our energy for generations – oil – is clearly out of place in the marine environment.
Mr. Pu’u continues:
That this resource is naturally occurring in the region’s water columns does not change the fact that it is indeed a pollutant. Being a resource out of place costs the biome energy to manage it, which it does via the benthic (microbial) communities that exist all around the seepage vents.
David Pu’u’s Perspective
The next part is why we at SOS are so appreciative of Mr. Pu’u’s perspective. As he states:
In spite of the fact that the Platform A disaster created a consciousness about the danger of a large spill event, what it really did was lead people to believe that oil drilling in the Channel causes oil and tar to pollute the coast. The opposite is actually true. By collecting and removing the pollutant, the oil industry is actually converting the hydrocarbon health hazard back into a resource by pulling it out of the biome, which allows for the system to focus energy on biomass creation evidenced in marine life which abounds in the region and always has, in spite of the previously uncollected pollutant prior. Removing the oil made the channel healthier.
And the big finish? Mr. Pu’u refers back to the presence of an oil slick on the channel couple of months after the Refugio Beach oil spill in May 2015. His words:
Two kayakers soon reported a large spill south of the Coal Oil Point seepage area and the County announced an investigation into the source. A couple days later a never mind statement was issued: “The source of the oil slick was determined to be naturally occurring. “ But it is still a pollutant.
That’s what we’ve been trying to tell everyone.
We know you must have a lot of questions after hearing this! Lucky for you, there’s a chance to learn more about it, coming soon! On April 6, 2017, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum will be debuting their new exhibit, The Geology of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel. As the SBMM states:
The Geology of Oil in the Channel exhibit will show how oil is formed, discuss the natural oil and gas seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel — the second largest such seeps in the world. The oil rich Monterey Formation which holds most of California’s known oil resources and is of major importance for understanding the complex geological history of California will be illustrated through a topographical map of the Santa Barbara Channel and the north and south geologic cross-section of the western transverse ranges of California. Geological forces that created the many layers of rock under our local waters and land will be displayed with photographs of natural seeps, along with actual samples liquid and rock formations of asphaltum.
So…a way to learn more about how natural seep oil gets from the formations to our coastal cliffs – and your feet? Talk about deep learning! See you there!
Insert Fuel Pun Here
The mission of SOS is to educate you, the public, about the polluting presence of offshore natural oil and gas seeps. For instance, we have shown you that research by the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences shows that natural seeps are the highest contributors of petroleum hydrocarbons to the marine environment. A total of 62% of petroleum pollution in North American waters comes from natural oil seeps, and only 1% is from extraction. We have also provided data that shows that oil and gas production reduces that pollution.
Looking at natural oil and gas seeps opens up the entire discussion on energy. This leads to a host of topics, connecting these discussions to our daily lives. So as part of our effort to educate on natural seeps, we include material on what that oil and gas could be used for – fuel. Which leads us to the cars we drive. What’s available, how are they fueled, and which is the best choice for my lifestyle?
So here’s a new technology – hydrogen fuel cell cars. Yay or nay? As with everything involving energy – that’s a complicated question.
How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Function
Let’s first talk about how they work. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen gas to power an electric motor. Unlike conventional vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel, fuel cell cars and trucks combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor. Since they’re powered entirely by electricity, fuel cell vehicles are considered electric vehicles (EVs), and are commonly referred to as fuel cell EVs (FCEVs) or hydrogen EVs (HEVs). Refueling a fuel cell vehicle is comparable to refueling a conventional car or truck; pressurized hydrogen is sold at hydrogen refueling stations, taking less than 10 minutes to fill current models. Once filled, the driving ranges of a fuel cell vehicle vary, but are similar to the ranges of gasoline or diesel-only vehicles (200-300 miles).
DriveClean describes the process that takes place in the car. An HEV is powered by a group of individual fuel cells, known as a fuel cell stack. The stack is designed to contain enough cells to provide the necessary power for the automotive application. A fuel cell stack produces power as long as fuel is available, similar to a combustion engine. The electricity generated by the fuel cell stack powers the electric motor that propels the vehicle.
Hydrogen fueling stations are operated by independent companies, similar to gas stations. True Zero operates the station on La Cumbre Road in Santa Barbara, shown at the left. As the company described, the hydrogen sold at True Zero stations today to re-fuel HEVs is transported in from facilities producing hydrogen for industrial uses. Two-thirds of this hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels, such as natural gas. But one-third, in keeping with California state law, comes from renewable sources such as bio-mass.
True Zero and other private and non-profit concerns are working toward further development of a network that supports HEVs. The California Fuel Cell Partnership was founded in 1999, and is an industry/government collaboration aimed at expanding the market for fuel cell electric vehicles powered by hydrogen. Energy Independence Now (EIN) is a non-profit organization primarily focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by advancing clean hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Fuel Cell Cars
So, which pun will be the most appropriate? Would you be a “fuel” not to buy one of these cars? True Zero lists the following benefits:
- An electric car that runs on hydrogen – quiet, clean, efficient
- Zero emission & zero oil
- Major automakers have been developing these cars for more than 20 years
- California is ground zero for the introduction of clean cars
- 5-minute charge
- 300 miles or more of driving range
- 60 to 70 miles per gallon equivalent
- Ability to scale to larger vehicle classes
OR would you be “fuelish” to even consider a leap to this kind of vehicle? That seems to be Elon Musk’s opinion. As reported on ThinkProgress, the Tesla CEO believes hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly” and why “hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” alternative fuel. At the Santa Barbara Community Environmental Council (CEC) community forum’s panel discussion on FCEVs on February 22, 2017, some of the challenges that Mr. Musk references were discussed. Using electrolysis to produce hydrogen does not use much water but uses a lot of electricity. So, using hydrogen is only renewable if it’s produced using wind or solar energy. It is not currently efficient or practical to use just solar for electrolysis – it would need to be a part of a grid system, producing solar energy for other uses as well.
Mr. Musk touches on some of these issues. His explanation, as provided on ThinkProgress is:
Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. If you get that hydrogen from water, so you’re splitting H20, electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process…. if you say took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it) and then put it in a car and run a fuel-cell, it is about half the efficiency…”
It’s not surprising that the developer of battery-powered vehicles would look negatively at a technology he is not using, particularly when the vehicles have similar price tags, markets…and challenges. But he echoes many common concerns about this technology.
We at SOS see our work as building a bridge to a renewable future. Any new technology is a step in the that direction. But it does take time. And oil and gas are the most reliable and affordable fuel source we have currently. In Santa Barbara, via natural seep processes, oil and gas are pollutants, the impacts of which are reduced by production. It’s all pretty complicated. So…
We’ve given you some info on alternatives, and some info on oil and gas. What do you think? Feeling “fuelish” or can’t be “fueled?” Which type of vehicle do you want to take on the road with you?