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?
Weather forecasters sure were right about this one!
These highly educated, knowledgeable experts were telling us, at least one week early, that Santa Barbara County was going to be hit by a big storm on Friday, February 17. They predicted that this event would particularly impact the southern Santa Barbara County coastline.
We’d mostly been kept out of the rain loop during last year’s El Nino and, so far, this winter’s storms. So how did they know that this storm was going to be different?
It’s called science.
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment,” science relies on data. Data on our planet’s condition is being collected all the time by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), other federal and state agencies, and researchers under contract to them. Data can include satellite images such as the one above, raw data such as temperature and circulation measurements, and the results of specific relevant studies. Researchers are associated with universities, think tanks, and some private organizations. Researchers often work in very narrow fields, and their goal is to analyze data to answer questions about how the world works for the benefit of us all. One of the most active of these research groups in Santa Barbara looks at natural oil seeps. (You are reading an SOS California blog – you didn’t think this was all going to be about the weather, did you?)
The Weather’s Impact on Natural Oil Seeps
Weather forecasters look at models (not the Fashion Week ones – we mean the ones that are produced by computers crunching an enormous amount of data). The weather models use raw data from past events to generate predictions of how current conditions are likely to evolve a few days out. In the case of Friday’s storm, they predicted what the satellite image ended up being. As NoozHawk reported, the south coast saw 4 to 6 inches of precipitation, the product of a low-pressure system meeting up with an “atmospheric river” of moist air. Seep researchers have shown that rainfall in this amount can even increase seep flow. So who is studying the seeps – and why?
UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) is deeply involved in the scientific study of the natural oil and gas seeps that impact Santa Barbara County. Researchers from many different disciplines work together through the UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project. As they say:
For thousands of years, oil and natural gas have erupted from natural marine hydrocarbon seeps in the depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. The seeps have a long local history. Tar deposits on the beaches were used by the native Californians and led to the onset of offshore petroleum exploration in the Channel and around the world. The seeps now serve as an area to study contributions from natural seeps to the sea, land, and Earth’s atmosphere.
UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project
The stated goal of the project is estimating seep emissions and revealing their effects, with emphasis on the following emission types: (1) natural gas to the atmosphere, (2) oil to the sea surface, (3) dissolved hydrocarbons in seawater. Methods employed include sonar 3.5 kHz profiling and side scan surveys, gas capture, dissolved gas sampling/analysis, tar sampling/analysis, and geological investigations (as cleverly depicted in the above graphic).
These researchers continually state how lucky they are to be based so close to their study area. UCSB is located at Coal Oil Point. Guess why it’s called that! If you guessed that it’s because the marine seep field along the northern Santa Barbara Channel off Coal Oil Point is the second largest area of natural oil and gas seepage in the world, you’d be correct.
Looking at the objectives in detail, you will notice that determining the effects of local oil production on seepage rates is included in their studies. This is because one of their initial studies, Decrease in Natural Hydrocarbon Seepage Offshore Coal Oil Point, California, Associated with Oil Production (Quigley et.al., 1999) showed that production at Venoco’s Platform Holly had reduced the quantity of oil and gas seeping out from cracks in the seafloor.
Accredited Organizations Studying Natural Oil Seeps
UCSB is not the only source of information on natural oil and gas seeps. The National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have studied marine pollutants on a national scale. Their research 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.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). BOEM manages the exploration and development of the nation’s offshore resources. As the agency states, they seek to appropriately balance economic development, energy independence, and environmental protection through oil and gas leases, renewable energy development and environmental reviews and studies. Their work dispels the notion that all oil in the Santa Barbara Channel is from spills or releases from oil exploration and production activities. Their metadata (data that describes other data) file has been created and is continually growing because natural oil seepage occurs in the waters of southern California. Active oil extraction and shipping is occurring concurrently within the region and it is of great interest to resource managers to be able to distinguish between natural seepage and anthropogenic oil spillage.
Federal and state agencies not only use the data from researchers outside of their agencies…they also fund the research. The UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project lists their funding sources as the Minerals Management Service (MMS, which is now BOEM), University of California Energy Institute, California Sea Grant, and Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society.
One of the investigators associated with the UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project is Dr. James Boles, Emeritus Professor of Geology, Department of Earth Science. Dr. Boles has recently been working with Venoco, the operator of Platform Holly, to get the most direct data on operations to compare to seep fluctuations. A recent study, entitled Hydrocarbon Production from the South Ellwood Field and the Effects on Naturally Occurring Oil and Gas Seeps, shows that decades of development from Platform Holly has significantly reduced the amount of oil and gas available for seepage and it has reduced the buoyancy force within the reservoir, which is the driving force for hydrocarbon escape. Translation: more oil drilling = less oil pollution. Dr. Boles’ study also stated that the reduction of seepage would likely be long‐lasting since the rate at which hydrocarbons are removed from the reservoir is considerably faster than the geological processes that replenish the reservoir.
(Dr. Boles is, of course, referring to the fact that, as described in Adventures in Energy, all of the oil and gas we use today began as microscopic plants and animals living in the ocean millions of years ago.)
So, we can produce energy and reduce pollution in the environment? Bet that makes this surfer happy.
Maybe he’s a student – learning about science and those basics of its study: research, data…even those other kinds of models!
Natural Oil Seeps and Our Ocean
We all love our offshore and coastal environment. It’s the prevailing reason many of us chose to live in California. And we want to do the best we can to protect it, and ourselves, from negative impacts and pollution.
We at SOS California spend a lot of time talking about local regulations. Though primarily intended to protect the environment, we think many may originate in misguided opinions about what is polluting our local environment. So we inform the public about natural oil and gas seeps, and that oil and gas production has been shown to reduce that source of pollution. We also discuss the complexity of regulations and let you…the public…know that your voice is an important one in decision-making.
You also have a voice in federal regulations, which include designations of environmentally special protected areas. We frequently hear how these designations can ban oil drilling forever. Well, as with most extreme statements, the way these regulations are proposed, evaluated, and enacted are much more complicated than they can at first seem. These types of statements popped up recently in an ad posted in the San Luis Obispo (SLO) Tribune calling for support for the proposed designation of a new protected area in our region called the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS). Any such designation would occur on a federal level, and go through an extensive public and regulatory review. Since it is proposed for areas we live and work in, let’s take a look at how this all happens.
First, let’s review a little history. In October 1972, Congress passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act which, among other things, establishes the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Title III of the law is later renamed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA).
There is no doubt that this is a very important program. There are certain areas in our federal purview that are unique, diverse, and sensitive marine and coastal environments subject to potential deterioration if activities that could be performed elsewhere are allowed to continue. But in the case of our local offshore areas, with pervasive natural oil and gas seeps, the best type of protection may be production. And the regulation and review process for National Marine Sanctuaries allows for that complexity in approach.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. The network includes a system of 13 national marine sanctuaries and 2 marine national monuments, all within areas under US jurisdiction. An additional 2 sanctuaries (not CHNMS) are under consideration. As ONMS states, regulations are codified at 15 CFR Part 922. As the office further describes:
Regulations have the effect and enforceability of law and are written in a specific manner. ONMS regulations prohibit specific kinds of activities, describe and define the boundaries of the designated national marine sanctuaries and set up a system of permits to allow the conduct of certain types of activities (that would otherwise not be allowed). In general, regulations are used by the ONMS to implement the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and national marine sanctuary management plans. Each sanctuary has its own set of regulations within 15 CFR Part 922 in what are called subparts. Subparts F through R each contain the sanctuary-specific regulations for all thirteen sanctuaries.
Natural Oil Seeps and Marine Animals
It’s a good thing that there is flexibility in the process. In an advertisement in the SLO Tribune in December 2016, those who are proposing that a new Central California sanctuary promise that, “You can protect the Central Coast from offshore drilling forever.” Those who know about natural oil and gas seeps have to ask if this is really the best approach to protect the resources of the Central Coast. For instance, would that sort of regulation have protected Olive the oiled otter?
The photo shows Olive in 2009, right after she was rescued and cleaned of oil – oil that was later discovered to have originated from natural seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel. Peer-reviewed studies have shown that oil and gas production from Platform Holly reduces natural oil and gas seeps. Check out the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) original press release and the studies under the Hydrocarbon Seeps Project discussing the relationship between oil and gas exploration near Santa Barbara County and the reduction in seep oil in the offshore and coastal environment.
All usage of the environment by humans, be it oil and gas production, tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, military operations, recreation, or any other use, is potentially impactful. Environmental research is designed to clarify these relationships in a way that is not merely based on anecdotal observations or emotional impressions. As stated in the 2009 Condition Report for the
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), this is an area of complex jurisdiction and management. Primary players within this sanctuary’s boundaries include Channel Islands National Park (most of the land of the islands offshore to one nautical mile) the US Navy (owners of San Miguel Island), and the non-profit The Nature Conservancy (owners of the western three-quarters of Santa Cruz Island). This is only a small sampling of government entities with jurisdiction in the area.
The relationship between National Marine Sanctuaries and any sort of usage is provided for in individual sanctuary regulations. With regard to oil and gas exploration and production, sanctuaries generally prohibit exploring for, developing or producing oil, gas or minerals (with a grandfather clause for preexisting operations). Despite that, it’s important to note that the relationship between CINMS and the agency managing federal oil and gas operations is close. The CINMS Management Plan references the former agency title Minerals Management Service (MMS) instead of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), but the relationship is the same:
MMS contributes significant funds and resources to marine research projects in the Channel Islands region. The Sanctuary sometimes uses MMS research results in support of Sanctuary management. MMS is also responsible for ensuring safe practices among the various oil and gas entities operating within the Santa Barbara Channel. MMS has one member and one alternate seat on the Advisory Council.
It’s also important to note that any prohibitions on oil and gas only apply to new projects within the sanctuary boundaries. This is a very important distinction. The area proposed for the CHNMS is quite large, as shown above. Also, according to the County of Santa Barbara Energy Division, 7 leases are currently in production in the Santa Maria Basin under the Point Pedernales, Tranquillon, and Point Arguello Units. Impacts on these activities would be considered, and subject to public comment, during evaluation of any proposed marine sanctuary. That process is already starting. On Tuesday, February 7th, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors held a public meeting on their proposed resolution to oppose the designation of the CHNMS.
The area originally proposed for CINMS extended all the way to the Santa Barbara coast, but the area that was chosen was much more condensed. This type of change happens as the proposal goes through the extensive federal project review process. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any federal project go through an analysis and public review and comment based around an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS evaluates the impacts of the proposed action on uses in a study area that includes the area proposed for designation. NEPA and implementing regulations require that Alternatives to the Proposed Action be presented and evaluated, and undergo the same level of public comment.
In the case of a proposed CHNMS, there is plenty to comment on. The Santa Maria Basin is an area naturally rich in oil and gas resources. As noted above, there are a number of existing operations that would be grandfathered if a new sanctuary were to be approved. And, considering the prevalence of natural oil and gas seeps in the region, and the reduction in seeps through offshore oil production, the point can be made that the way to protect natural resources is to reduce the natural seepage.
As a nonprofit, SOS is motivated by education, not politics. With regard to energy resources, though, it bears mentioning that the new administration has spoken positively about oil and gas production in the US. SOS has, in the past, been invited to testify to various congressional subcommittees on domestic oil resources – our most recent was 2014. We intend to find future avenues to bring our educational message to the current administration.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), there are approximately 3,100 southern sea otters that inhabit California coastal waters from south of San Francisco to Point Conception. This species is among the marine mammals most impacted by oil – it fouls their fur, leading to hypothermia. We haven’t even mentioned seep impacts on seabirds. In the first 3 months of 2012, the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) saw nearly 140 oiled birds come into its facility for rehabilitation after run-ins with natural oil seeps. A majority of the birds brought in were murres, which float on top of the water and dive for food, but the group also reported that other bird types had been oiled. Common and Pacific loons, Western grebes, an eared grebe, a surf scoter and a rhinoceros auklet were among those brought in for care.
Do you think Olive…and the birds… would prefer that oil production continue to reduce the likelihood of further impacts to their species from natural seeps?
We can’t ask her, but we can ask you. Please tell us what you think!
Finally! We have weather in Santa Barbara – and all of the “fun” that brings!
Oh…don’t get me wrong – there’s always weather in Santa Barbara, in some form or another. But with our temperate climate, it’s easy to slip into to those relaxed word usages. It’s similar to asking whether a sick person has a temperature. They may have a fever, but if they don’t have a temperature…that’s a problem.
But we at SOS are all about natural oil and gas seeps. We’ve been asked questions about the impact that certain conditions have on seep volume, flow, and distribution. While we’re enjoying Santa Barbara’s stormiest winter in years, it’s a perfect time to ask “Weather…or not?”
In winter 2005, the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) magazine Current reported that, “Extensive oil slicks have been observed near Coal Oil Point since the recent severe storms pummeled the region in January. These slicks are significantly larger than typically seen in the area, including just before the storms.” On flyovers of the area, researchers observed higher volumes of oil in surface slicks in known seep locations as well as new areas of seepage. A significant bird oiling event in January 2005 was attributed to this seepage increase.
Would heavy rain have caused this? According to Current, UCSB Marine Geophysics professor Bruce Luyendyk, thought so. He told the publication that, “The rain may have changed the subsurface hydrology, creating higher driving pressure of the seepage.”
How could this happen? Don’t the seeps originate from under layers of rock? LiveScience also reported on this event. They quoted Ira Leifer, Researcher at the UCSB Marine Science Institute, as follows:
We hypothesize that the water from the exceptional Southern California rains flowed along rock layers underground, out under the ocean, and into the rock formations where the oil and gas are seeping from or through. This increased the driving force, and the seeps became more active.
These aerial photos, by Dr. Leifer and Chris McCullough of the California Department of Conservation’s Division Oil and Gas, show the difference in seepage surface appearance before and after a storm event. Typical oil emissions from a small portion of the Coal Oil Point seep field are shown in the left image.
The image on the right shows typical conditions observed since the 2005 winter storms. (Note: the photos are labeled to distinguish kelp beds from areas that show seep oil and gas.)
These reports and comments are from 2005, but the phenomenon of storm impacts on natural seep flow offshore continue to be part of the seep discussion. This excerpt is from a 2010 report entitled Long-term monitoring of a marine geologic hydrocarbon source by a coastal air pollution station in Southern California
…an interesting hypothesis is that rains could affect seepage through aquifer recharge. Rock strata run from the coastal plain under the seabed and are penetrated by faults onshore (Jackson and Yeats, 1982) and offshore (Leifer et al., 2010), providing potential pathways to transmit aquifer pressures to seep migration.
In January and February 2012, 97 oiled murres – penguin-like diving birds that spend most of their lives at sea, were brought to the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). These birds, including the one pictured, had been oiled by a natural oil seep along the Southern California coast. IBRRC reported that the oil came from natural seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel, and when this oil is stirred up each winter it becomes particularly harmful to diving birds, like the murres. In addition:
Oil – whether it is spilled from a tanker or mixed up from the ocean floor – interferes with birds’ ability to maintain their body temperature by impairing the natural waterproofing properties of their feathers and consequently their insulation from the elements, often resulting in hypothermia.
What about beach impacts? According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), chemical fingerprints show that tar balls that appear on central California shores during the winter months mostly originate in southern California seeps. These tar balls are believed to be carried
northward by the Davidson Current, which periodically flows northward along the California coast, often aided by winter storms that bring southwesterly winds to the region. Unusually large numbers of tar balls sometimes appear on central California beaches after a series of storms. The article Tar Balls Washed onto Central California Beaches by Storms in the USGS monthly newsletter Sound Waves describes an event that occurred in May 2007.
As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states on their Office of Response and Restoration website, oil from natural seeps shows similar appearance, behavior, and effects as oil released during drilling and other human activities. As a result, oil from seeps affects fish, birds, and wildlife; can impair surface waters and shorelines; and can impact recreational activities.
Therefore, it’s important to know how other natural phenomena change the volume and distribution of naturally occurring oil and gas seeps. And it’s equally important to realize that any impacts can be mitigated by reducing the pressure in the formation through responsible offshore oil and gas production.
Happy New Year! And so we begin another trip around the sun!
We at SOS California are like anyone else. We like to use this time to look back on what happened in the last year, what we accomplished, and how we can do it better moving forward. This is especially important to us as we move into our tenth year.
As an educational non-profit, we rely on feedback. We are fortunate to have become more active in social media, because it gives us immediate feedback on whether our information is received. We are thrilled to notice that the conversation is active, and our followers are growing. But in some cases…
Our social media consultants track all comments. They recently mentioned some that show us that, as far as we’ve come, we still have our work cut out for us. As they put it, before sharing one such comment…
We can’t make this stuff up.
Thought you’d be interested in hearing a few . . . along with a refresher on what the research tells us.
One was from an incoming student to University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). This newcomer, encountering tar on UCSB beaches, and seeing oil production platforms offshore, asked “Why are those platforms dumping oil into the ocean?” Oh human . . . you so funny!
Actually, the exact opposite is true. According to the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 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.
The second largest marine oil seeps in the world (the largest in the Western Hemisphere) lie in the Santa Barbara Channel. According to the California State Lands Commission, they comprise more than 1,200 of the over 2,000 active submarine seeps along the California coast. Half of these occur within 3 miles of an area called Coal Oil Point, located just west of Santa Barbara near the UCSB campus. That’s exactly what this new student was seeing…and, no doubt, stepping in.
AND instead of blaming those oil platforms, this new student should thank them. 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.
A more recent Facebook comment had us more than a little surprised.
It’s a little spooky to know we have this creeping through our ocean. Looks like we’re in for something real bad. Looks like a major earthquake is getting ready to take place.
Ok . . . let’s dispel this one right away. The oil and gas are not seeping out because a major earthquake is about to take place. The seepage is due to cracks in the surface of the ocean floor that were a result of earthquakes over time in our very seismically active Santa Barbara Channel. But the quantities seeping out that we report about on our Facebook page are not the result of cracks widening due to a potential future earthquake. These quantities are normal.
Every 12 months approximately 86,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean along the Santa Barbara coast. This represents the volume of oil released into the Santa Barbara Channel as a result of the 1969 oil spill. The volume that seeps every 4 years is equivalent to the amount of oil released from the Exxon Valdez spill. And it is a BIG mistake to make an assumption that an earthquake is imminent based on facts about the quantities of natural seeps.
But here’s where it gets a little complicated. An increase in seep quantity can occur when an earthquake occurs in the Santa Barbara Channel. As our late co-founder, Bruce Allen, relayed to NoozHawk, the Santa Barbara Daily News in its July 4, 1925 reporting of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake:
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 also noted after the 6.5 magnitude Sylmar quake in 1971, and following a small Ventura event. These are complicated systems. But the reality is that increased natural oil and gas seepage can result from seismic activity, but is not the predictor.
Venoco, the operator of Platform Holly, is proposing to adjust their Lease Line to produce in the area of the most active and condensed occurrence of natural oil and gas seeps offshore Santa Barbara County – while quitclaiming a portion of the existing lease back to the state. SOS reported this in our FaceBook and other social media outlets so we could encourage our audience to voice their opinions at one of the many public meetings that have been held about the project. One of our commenters asked,
Why don’t they leave our coastal environment alone?
Leave it alone? Why would anyone want Venoco to leave our coast alone, when their work means a decrease in coastal, beach, and air pollution and the opportunity for the state to envelope 400 acres of leased offshore area into state-protected coastal sanctuary status?
We haven’t even mentioned the economic impacts of leaving the coast alone. This has actually been the case since offshore production in the area was halted after the Refugio oil spill of May 2015. Pacific Coast Business Times reported on California Economic Forecast Director Mark Schneipp’s comments during a November 2015 Economic Action Summit in Santa Maria. His analysis showed that, if Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 remains dormant over the next three years as projected, Santa Barbara County could lose out on an estimated $74 million.
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.
We hope you’ve learned something from our response to these, our more interesting comments, and we don’t want any of our teasing to discourage you from commenting or asking any questions. Please keep reading our materials, and following our educational postings. But also, please excuse us if, occasionally, in response to a particularly negative or confrontational comment from another follower, if we quote our flippered friend…
That’s the SEALIEST thing we’ve ever heard! You need to produce the oil to clean up the ocean, the beaches, and the air . . . for you AND me!
Stay Up-to-date with SOS
We have an announcement – SOS California has GONE VIRAL!!!
Have no fear – there are no medications required. In fact, it’s a great thing!
Since our inception in 2007, SOS has grown. That growth has sometimes been slow, but always steady. We’ve used tried-and-true techniques to fulfill our mission – to educate the public about the environmental impacts of natural oil and gas seeps, and the creative and effective solution. Our positive view of oil production was welcomed by some you’d expect. We spoke in front of many groups. We were invited more than once to testify to Congress. We’ve supported local projects.
As you know, we have long had a website. To support that outreach, we started publishing a biweekly blog. In the last couple of years, we also dipped our toe into Social Media, with a Facebook page. We began to get some feedback on our message, and develop a conversation.
Then IT happened.
This year, through the creative ideas of FirstClick, our outstanding Social Media consultants, we have seen our educational message reach an audience we could only dream of. FirstClick has found a way to merge the best of all of our previous efforts to disseminate our message. And we’d like to tell you how that happens.
The benefit of having a Social Media expert is that they know how best to use all platforms (oil and gas pun intended!).
For example, everyone knows about Facebook. Certainly everyone has opinions on whether Facebook is a good or bad thing. But did you know that, if used correctly, Facebook is an amazing way to promote your business or, the case of a non-profit, spread the word. But it requires a certain knowledge of what the audience is expecting, and how they are using it, to determine whether that branding or message is taken seriously and retained…and shared.
You remember the commercial…you tell two friends, and so on, and so on. That’s how Social Media works. But Facebook works a little differently than Twitter, which is different from Reddit, which is different from having a website…or a blog. But how?
That’s why funneling a portion of our limited resources to FirstClick is so important. FirstClick knows how to navigate this complex and ever-changing landscape. We provide the content…they place it just where it needs to be. And the results have been astonishing.
The best part is that his is a truly collaborative effort. One of the best examples of this is when we first met the (not surprisingly) young professionals who form the core of this company. It gave us a bit of pause in those initial days. Younger residents of Santa Barbara tend to be against oil and gas production. But these individuals are not only educated, intelligent, and committed to a better world…they are open minded. It gave us an incredible sense of pride after our first meetings that, as soon as the team heard what we are about, and reviewed our materials and our mission, that they have now become our strongest and most vocal supporters.
It is the enthusiasm that our FirstClick team has for our message that makes our collaboration so effective. They post for us every day on Facebook, so when they see a topic trending in the news that is applicable, whether national, international, or in our local area, it’s on. This is how they make sure that SOS is a voice to be heard in the conversation on energy and the environment.
FirstClick also knows best how to use each media platform to its full advantage for our content and message. They make sure that SOS takes advantage of all resources. For example, Facebook is best for that briefer, video-centric comment; even briefer bits are saved for Twitter; and our lengthier video content is on YouTube. Though FirstClick will share links to the blog on these sites, they have let us know that a better response comes from Reddit, a platform used more for news topics. FirstClick also makes sure our website stays active by tracking Search Engine Optimization (SEO). We haven’t even mentioned GooglePlus and Pinterest – we’re on those too.
We at SOS realized that there was a big, technical world out there that we needed to use to our best advantage. FirstClick has certainly shown us how to do that. But our relationship with this amazing group has grown into much more than we could have imagined. They are truly a collaborative partner, and it is that meeting of the minds that has enhanced every effort we have made – and seen us grow by leaps and bounds.
So we invite you to learn more about SOS California! We have blogs that tell you all about natural oil and gas seeps (get seep schooled!); how to get beach tar off of your feet…and off your surfboard; how oil and gas production can be the bridge to a renewable future; and every other topic about energy and the environment.
The thing that thrills us the most about going viral is that it gets us closer to YOU! So find us…and tell us what you think!
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+SoscaliforniaOrg
See…we aren’t the only “social” species! Twitter must have said “food at the platform!!”
If you have ever ridden with a kid in a car (or with an impatient grownup), you’ve heard this whine. OK…you’ve probably said it yourself.
Why would I talk about this here? Here we talk about energy. You hear adults (and kids!) express their desire for clean energy, energy from renewable resources – anything but oil.
But do you know what grownups should be asking about the future of energy? You guessed it – are we there yet?
I attended the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) Issues Conference the first week of October. The sessions were particularly applicable to SOS because the focus was the importance of industry communications with the public. Presenters encouraged industry to be completely transparent with you, the non-industry folks, about how business is done in the production of something that is important to everyone – energy. This being an oil conference, you might be surprised to learn that much of the emphasis was on alternative sources and renewable energy and, until those options are more viable, ways to produce oil and gas more efficiently. That last emphasis is not just at the behest of the public. Operating more efficiently benefits companies financially AND reduces carbon emissions. Yes…oil companies DO talk about climate change!
Oh…and presenters talked about how blogs can be used to provide the public more insight into general operations, project details, industry operations and goals, and local energy use and planning for future needs. Start an informative blog? Check!
There were also points made about how we all use energy:
- Honorable Bill Lockyer, former California Attorney General and President Pro Tempore, California State Senate stated that a switch to a newer energy source takes 50 to 100 years.
- Dorothy Rothrock, President, California Manufacturing & Technology Association emphasized the huge impact that energy costs have on how we live our lives. She feels that the public’s concerns are about housing costs, commuting distances, and the future of that for their kids. If you can’t afford to pay for the gas for a commute, that can change your choice of job and where you live.
- Robert Stavins, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University stated that legislation for energy development and production should pass the ultimate test: it should be scientifically sound, economically feasible, and politically pragmatic.
We have reached such an advanced level of development with oil and gas that experts can guide future use by applying those tests. But we are in a relative infancy stage with renewables, in that we are still testing out theories of development and trying to apply them to use in the real world – with the least possible environmental and climate impact. What we have to ask is…
Are we there yet?
Four days after the WSPA conference I attended The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s monthly Science Pub lecture. UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) researcher Dr. Douglas McCauley, discussed The Future of Wildlife in Our Oceans. As he said, the news is full of stories about the decline of wildlife health on land. But what is the status of animal life on the other 71% of our planet: our oceans? Dr. McCauley reviewed the impact on biological resources throughout human history that led to three phases of extinction on land. Methods evolved from one-on-one hunting to enhanced techniques that collected large numbers of animals at once. These uses had some impact – even early man’s hunting lead to extinctions – but the most impactful was the third phase – the reduction in habitat area that accompanied society’s industrial revolution. He sees a parallel in how we are increasing our use of ocean resources. Check out his comparison of these three phases of extinction on land and in the ocean in the image below.
We are now approaching Phase 3 in our oceans, a veritable industrial revolution. The uses fall into four categories: Marine Traffic, Marine Farming, Marine Mining, and…you guessed it… Marine Energy. Dr. McCauley sees a great acceleration in the use of ocean space. He is not saying that growth needs to stop – just that it needs to be managed in a way that protects human and environmental health.
Of interest to SOS is that Phase 3 of the 100-year projection does not show much in the way of offshore oil and gas production. Oil and gas, by this point, appear to have built the bridge to a renewable future. Many would think that the ocean must be so much better off without oil, with alternatives having solved all of our energy problems…right?
Not so fast. Check out the wind farms (or are they wave farms?). The windmills are shown under the ocean’s surface, and they require an enormous amount of space. This is not so far-fetched. This August, the Hornsea Project, an offshore, above-the-ocean’s-surface wind farm in the North Sea, just got the go-ahead for a large expansion.
The Block Island Wind Farm is the first in the US. Deepwater Wind states that they completed construction on the 30-megawatt project in August, and commercial operations are expected to begin in November 2016. Does anyone really think such expansive projects happen without the potential for environmental impact and the need for mitigation? They also don’t happen without conflicting local public opinion, as an article titled Construction begins on Block Island wind farm but debate continues in the local paper The Day shows. Some who were interviewed felt the project could be beneficial. But others were concerned that a non-local company might be seeking a big payoff at the expense of those whom it will impact most. Didn’t you think that only oil companies did that?
We all know that onshore wind farms, while using a technology designed to reduce carbon emissions, have produced some unintended, and unpredicted, consequences. An article published September 29 in Science Daily state that:
Wind turbines are known to kill large birds, such as golden eagles, that live nearby. Now there is evidence that birds from up to hundreds of miles away make up a significant portion of the raptors that are killed at these wind energy fields...Worldwide, such facilities have been responsible for the deaths of 140,000 to 328,000 birds and 500,000 to 1.6 million bats, raising questions about their effects on population sustainability.
What about other energy alternatives? On September 4, 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported on the dangers to wildlife from the Ivanpah Solar Project in the Mojave Desert. The article quotes federal biologists who say that about 6,000 birds each year are fried out of the sky or crash into the facility’s three 40-foot towers. That’s made the news before. What was new to me was this information:
Coyotes eat dozens of road runners trapped along the outside of the perimeter fence that was designed to prevent federally threatened desert tortoises from wandering into the property.
A spokesman for the NRG Energy, Inc., the company that runs the facility, said that they’d been trying to find ways to reduce bird deaths since 2014, but the results have been modest.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) publishes an Annual Energy Outlook, which includes projections to 2040. Mark Green from Energy Tomorrow states that EIA projects that oil and natural gas will be our country’s leading fuel sources in 2040, with petroleum and other liquids supplying 35.02% of our energy and natural gas supplying 33.03% – totaling 68.05%. As he points out, that’s virtually the same share oil and natural gas supplied in 2015 (66.99%).
Our point? All of these alternatives are viable. Yes…even oil and gas. But all require much thought and planning to provide the best result with the least impact. As shown with prices of electric vehicles, affordability will continue to be an issue. That is why the projections to 2040 indicate that hydrocarbons will be our primary energy source for quite some time.
We’ve been using oil and gas for a long time. And we are learning more every day about alternatives. But for the ultimate solution, you have to keep asking…
Say it with me…
Are we there yet?
Who doesn’t love a win-win?
Compromise proposes to shut down of Platform Holly and Ellwood Onshore Facility in 25 years
It’s the ultimate in a positive compromise…and a wonderful example of “adulting” in my book. The Business Dictionary defines win-win as the “Negotiation philosophy in which all parties to an agreement or deal stand to realize their fair share (not 100 percent) of the benefits or profit.”
According to the front page article in the Santa Barbara News-Press on Friday, September 16, 2016, Venoco, Inc. proposed a project that Chief Operations Officer Michael Wracher says is a “win-win.” (The link will lead you to a teaser for the article – you need a subscription to read the whole thing. Try NoozHawk…or the Independent…or KEYT…)
Venoco: Platform Holly
We at SOS California are not surprised to hear this coming from Venoco. We are of the opinion that this company, in their approach and ongoing operations, provides the best example of win-win in Santa Barbara – environmentally, economically, and by providing the energy that is a bridge to our renewable future.
Venoco launched their Lease Line Adjustment proposal prior to the Refugio Oil Spill. There have been some delays in the approval process, and a halt in Venoco’s operations at Platform Holly because of the spill. This is a shame, because the proposal as originally stated is a win-win. By shifting the footprint of the current lease, Venoco would be producing in the area of the most active and condensed occurrence of natural oil and gas seeps offshore Santa Barbara County – while quitclaiming a portion of the existing lease back to the state. That means a decrease in coastal, beach, and air pollution and the opportunity for the state to envelope 400 acres of leased offshore area into state-protected coastal sanctuary status. Sounds like a win-win!
This update provides even more. In addition to the above benefits, Venoco is now proposing to, according to the News-Press, “cease oil production altogether in 25 years, which would retire Platform Holly and the Ellwood Onshore Facility on Goleta about 15 years ahead of schedule.” Now THAT’S the win-win EVERYONE will love.
Why the uh-oh? While I’m, of course, hopeful, there’s a little bit of been-there-done-that creeping into the back of my brain. I’ve been in this business in Santa Barbara for a long time. I’ve seen a few great proposals…a few win-wins…get shot down. So I give you two words of caution…Tranquillon Ridge.
The Environmental Impact Report for the action, first proposed in 2008, stated that the proposed Tranquillon Ridge Project involved the development by Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) (now part of Freeport-McMoRan and not related to Plains All American) of oil and gas wells in a proposed State Tidelands lease from Platform Irene. At the time, the platform, offshore from Vandenberg Air Force Base, was used to develop and produce the Point Pedernales Field, from Federal waters. The aspects of the PXP proposal that I found similar to Venoco’s were, as described by PR NewsWire, donation of coastal land for permanent conservation, termination of PXP’s existing oil and gas production operations offshore California in 14 years, and removal of all related onshore processing facilities at the end of the project, instead of the company’s 30-plus year production/drilling program.
This PXP proposal was celebrated by environmental groups in Santa Barbara as it went through the required regulatory process. A 2008 news release by Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Get Oil Out! (GOO!), and the Citizens Planning Association of Santa Barbara (CPA) celebrated the 4-1 vote of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to approve a proposal that, they said, came about as a result of an historic and unprecedented agreement forged between the environmental groups and PXP.
What a clear win-win! So you may ask – how is that project progressing today?
According to the County of Santa Barbara Energy Division, the State Lands Commission (SLC) took final action on the Tranquillon Ridge project lease request on January 29, 2009 at a hearing in Santa Barbara. They described the results as follows:
After hearing a recommendation of denial by SLC staff, the three-member Commission voted two to one to deny the lease request, with Thomas Sheehy of the Governor’s Department of Finance casting the vote in favor of approving the request. Commissioner Sheehy highlighted the proposed significant economic benefits to the State and applauded the efforts of PXP and the environmental community in finding common ground to bring this request before the Commission. Commissioners Chiang and Garamendi cast the majority votes denying the lease request, finding that the request by PXP was not in the best interest of the State of California. The central issue of their denial was that approving the lease request would send a message that additional drilling is possible off the California coast.
I was at the SLC hearing in January 2009. It was shocking to hear the decision following a long days’ worth of comments. I’d been to enough of these meetings to know that it was unprecedented to hear so much agreement among the usually conflicting parties involved in the energy world in Santa Barbara. That was progress worth celebrating and respecting. These comments are from John Garamendi (Lt. Governor at the time), and are from the transcript of the meeting:
I appreciate the immediacy. And I also appreciate Genesis, where Esau sold his birthright for an immediate meal. I am not about to sell the California birthright of the most fabulous coast anywhere in this world for an immediate meal.
Aside from the inappropriate biblical reference he provided during a public government meeting (sorry…not sorry…I’m from Philadelphia, so a bit of a stickler on matters related to the separation of church and state), the Lt. Governor showed amazing short-sightedness in his effort to reduce the impacts of climate change – his reasoning for his decision.
Because…his decision was made in spite of evidence that offshore oil production was solely responsible for the significant reductions in coastal seepage pollution and that the area surrounding Tranquillon Ridge was also a natural hydrocarbon seep area. Ironically, the beaches near Tranquillon Ridge are documented by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to be heavily polluted from natural seep oil.
After the Tranquillon Ridge experience I want to say…Good Luck Venoco. It will sure be interesting. Hopefully, those involved in the decision process in this new Venoco proposal will be more informed of the contribution of the natural seeps to climate change…and to pollution in our coastal and offshore environment.
Don’t we all…finally…deserve a win-win?
Learn more about natural oil seeps from SOS’s Back to Seep School!