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?
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!