GO WITH THE FLOW
That’s what the County of Santa Barbara has decided to do in the wake of the 1/9 Debris Flow. (Yes…our very own Montecito disaster has a name.) The new evacuation maps produced by the County Office of Emergency Services (OES) show Mandatory Evacuation Zones that are within the hardest hit areas from that fateful day. Makes sense, in a way. But isn’t planning supposed to happen before an event?
We were talking about flows. So, this being an SOS California blog, I want to talk about the constant, currently unchecked flow of oil and gas into the Santa Barbara Channel from natural oil seeps. But the context in which I want to discuss this today has to do with another type of flow…the flow of money.
In the first few weeks after the 1/9 Debris Flow, the talk centered on the devastation: the impacts of the loss of life and the loss of property, the sense of community and how to help. Local author TC Boyle’s New Yorker article, The Absence in Montecito, describes the setting perfectly. While we try to wrap our heads around that reality we’re beginning to hear more every day about the economic impacts. Here are just some of the details:
- As early as January 14, five days after the flow, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles reported that the event “is causing distress miles from where the torrent of muck and boulders stopped, as a local economy that thrives on tourism and the lure of sun-soaked beaches was left reeling…the economic damage ranged up and down the coast, far from where the mudslide ravaged the celebrity getaway of Montecito.”
- On January 18, KQED reported that “Some local business owners say the prolonged shutdown of the 101 Freeway has led to missed shipments and lost revenues.” Local agriculture provides one example – growers need to get their shipments out. I noticed the reduced stock at clothing and grocery stores that were impacted by this collateral economic effect.
- The Santa Barbara Independent reported on the February 5 Community Tourism Recovery Forum hosted by Visit California and Visit Santa Barbara. According to Visit California, “every week Highway 101 was closed resulted in a loss of an estimated $6.6 million of visitor spending in Santa Barbara County. On a per-day basis, the loss was $949,000.” In fact, tourism impacts had started as soon as the ash from the Thomas Fire wafted here from Ventura. Our county “took a massive fiscal hit when the fire began to descend on the community in early December and burned through the holiday season until January 12. Even in non-evacuation zones, the toxic air led businesses that often rely on the holiday season for income to close temporarily or cut staff to reduce costs.” Internet pictures, such as the one to the left, of smoke-filled air and residents wearing gas masks didn’t help. In fact, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara had closed during the fires, opened for 1 day, and now their website states, “As a result of the January 9 flooding and mudslides, the Resort will be closed until June 1, 2018.” Montecito Inn sustained significant damage during the 1/9 Debris Flow. The hotel’s planned re-opening on February 16, its 90th anniversary, has been postponed.
- On January 26, John Palminteri with KEYT reported that, “There will be a significant drop in property tax income from the Montecito area in the months ahead after urgent reassessments take place due to the recent mudflow catastrophe. The total cost of the damage has yet to be calculated but officials say it will be the costliest disaster in county history based on property values in the area…In addition to the mudflow calculations going on, the assessor’s office has already removed $163-million in fire impacts from the tax rolls based on damage or losses last December in the Thomas fire when it came through Santa Barbara County.“
- And what service can be heavily impacted by a drop in tax revenue? Public schools. On February 15, KCLU’s Lance Orozco reported that, “Santa Barbara’s Cold Spring School survived the January disaster, but many of the homes in the one school-school district didn’t. It’s estimated the 170 student school could lose close to 10% of its budget because of decreased property tax revenue as a result of the destructive debris flows… The loss of revenue could mean massive cuts, or potentially even closing its doors. “ Of course there is talk of fundraising efforts, but how can this be enough to save a school, considering all the other demands on corporate and personal funding? And it’s certain that other County schools will feel the pinch as well.
Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Coast Village Association, in her comments during the Community Tourism Recovery Forum, emphasized the effect the natural disasters have had on business owners and employees. “Think about what a month of reduced income looks like, and then another 20 days of no income, and ask how your budget would do under those kind of circumstances.”
That’s exactly what we at SOS are thinking about.
SOS has a solution. The first step – we’d would like to ask the community members whose automatic response any offshore oil project is “NO!!!” to consider the following:
- The economic resources we’ve lost
- The economic resource we have
Anyone who knows SOS understands that we’ve been educating the public on the economic advantages of producing oil and gas from our natural seeps. We are just surprised that, especially in the face of difficult times being made more so by natural factors that are out of our control, more of the public does not understand that we can exercise some control. We all, as taxpayers, are the owners of the offshore oil and gas leases, not the oil companies. The oil companies lease the opportunity to develop the resources for us. So we control the resource – and we can win economically as well through the leasing process.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) develops the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (National OCS Program) for oil and gas development in accordance with the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCS Lands Act). This National OCS Program establishes a five-year schedule of oil and gas lease sales proposed for the U.S. OCS: it specifies the size, timing, and location of potential leasing activity that the Secretary of the Interior determines will best meet national energy needs for the five-year period under consideration. BOEM is initiating a process to develop a new National OCS Program for 2019–2024, which would include California offshore areas. Santa Barbara, of course, plans to rally in opposition to the plan. And, while we may own the resource, many local politicians are opposed to any increase in oil and gas production. As reported in the Santa Maria Sun, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, at their January 30 regular meeting, passed a resolution (3 votes to 2) formally opposing new offshore oil leases in federal waters along the California coast.
Just think about it. Santa Barbara County would benefit should offshore leasing be approved. As discussed in the Draft Proposed Program 2019 – 2024, OCS oil and gas production increases the economic contribution to local economies through spending and investment, and provides a meaningful contribution to state and local tax revenues. Also, revenue sharing is a method of providing economic benefit to those regions that bear the environmental risks of proximate OCS oil and gas activities, and is implemented in accordance with Section 8(g) of the OCS Lands Act. In 2016, California received $1,648,042 in 8(g) revenues.
It will take years to rebuild Montecito. Don’t we need to find a way to support that effort?
Just think about it. Maybe take a walk on the beach and think about it – the ebb…and the flow.
Fire and Rain
Thank you, James Taylor, for such a beautiful song. I always loved it, but I appreciate it even more now because…well, I’ve seen fire…and rain.
The Thomas Fire recently ravaged Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. I live in Montecito, as do a couple others in SOS. I rent – I have for years. I feel as much a part of this community as Rob Lowe, Oprah, or anyone else.
And we all thought the fire was the big deal. It was. It just wasn’t the only big deal. I escaped from the debris flow that hit Montecito in the early morning hours of January 9, 2018. I was home, in a Voluntary Evacuation Warning area. I heard and saw a raging river of rocks and debris outside my bedroom window, lit by the orange glow of fires from exploding transformers and gas lines. I threw my cat in her carrier, put my violin and laptop on top of my piano, and barely got out through thigh-high mud. A neighbor helped me carry the kitty, and we made it to higher ground. We were the lucky ones. Our combined SOS hearts go out to the loved ones of those who did not survive, and to those whose homes were impacted.
Aside from the fact that these events eclipse all other topics, why reference them in a blog about Santa Barbara’s prolific and natural oil seeps? There are many connections here, but let’s start with the most obvious.
Fire, rain, debris flows, and our oil seeps are all natural phenomena. Anything that’s natural must be great, right? The Thomas Fire followed natural boundaries driven by wind. As Karl Hutterer, the former Director of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum stated in the Voices section of the Sunday January 7, 2018 Santa Barbara News-Press, “Ecologists know that wildfires are natural occurrences in the West, especially in regions with dry seasons, where fire-adapted plant communities have evolved that are not only able to tolerate fires but even require them for regeneration.” As John McPhee points out in his New Yorker article, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” the fire/debris flow cycle is typical to the mountainous environment of southern California. He describes one event as a “Textbook situation… —a bowl in the mountains filled with hard chaparral that had not been touched by fire in ninety-nine years. The older chaparral becomes, the hotter it burns… The hotter the fire, the more likely a debris flow—and the greater the volume when it comes.” Sound familiar?
It’s clear that natural processes can wreak havoc on us…and nature. The photo provides an interesting example of how a natural disaster can impact one of our favorite local spots. It shows cars that were deposited on Butterfly Beach by the Montecito debris flow. I was on that beach on New Year’s Day, and do you know what I saw? I saw tar blobs and ash in the surf line. The tar and ash are probably still there. You can see the result of three natural processes impacting one stretch of beach.
One of these processes is natural oil seeps. Every 12 months, approximately 86,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean along the Santa Barbara coast – the equivalent of the quantity of oil spilled in the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. (We’ll talk about spills later.) Can you really be constantly spilling oil into the marine environment without impacts? We at SOS California don’t think so.
Oil in the marine environment is a pollutant. For example, oil from Santa Barbara’s seeps has been shown to impact birds miles away. Oil in the water column and on the surface impacts phytoplankton, invertebrates, fish, and marine mammals. Methane released to the atmosphere impacts our lungs and adds to the load of greenhouse gases. You can see it bubbling wildly to the surface at Coal Oil Point. Methane used to be collected in seep tents placed on the seafloor until oil production from Venoco’s Platform Holly reduced the pressures in the formation the oil was seeping from and the flow of methane stopped.
What? Oil and gas production reduced the natural seeps? Well, you’ve now figured out why SOS is here. That’s part of what we want you to know.
Fear of an oil spill is often stated as the primary reason some locals disapprove of offshore oil and gas production. The concept that seeps are an oil spill happening in slow motion is hard to grasp.
An oil spill can happen: just as a plane can fall out of the sky; and just as a fire that starts 40 miles away can lead to the worst disaster in a county’s history. Does my recent experience with natural disasters in Montecito mean I’ll start searching for the perfect place to live, one with no natural or man-made threats? Of course not…because such a place does not exist. It’s a waste of time and resources to make decisions solely based on total risk avoidance.
But do you know another thing that oil spills, fires, and debris flows have in common? The response to these disasters, natural and otherwise, is planned well in advance. Experts review historic accounts and all parameters potentially affected to reduce risk while instituting measures that can deal with the “What if?”
Recent events in Montecito show this planning in action. The Thomas Fire fight, with a little bit of luck in wind direction on December 16, 2017, was able to prevent the devastation that could have occurred in Montecito and Santa Barbara by staging hundreds of response vehicles and personnel at vulnerable locations. With regard to the debris flow, Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent, wrote, “Disaster response efforts were in place well before the sky began to fall in the predawn hours on January 9. The night before, teams of firefighters — engines and strike teams from multiple agencies — and about 200 first responders were positioned throughout Montecito and Carpinteria in anticipation of flash floods.”
And yes – every oil and gas exploration and production company is required to anticipate the “What if?” of an oil spill. I wrote many Oil Spill Contingency Plans. They are enormous, multi-volume documents, specific to the operations as well as the local environment and conditions. They carry so much detail and preparation that, back in the day when they were more hard-copy than electronic, the joke was that they should be printed on sorbent sheets and thrown into the spill.
All kidding aside, the detail and coordination is comprehensive. Along the coast of Santa Barbara and in other coastal locations, local fishermen are involved and trained as part of a separate volume describing a Fishermen’s Response Plan. There is also a separate but integrated Marine Wildlife Oil Spill Contingency Plan, with details on species and habitats, behavior, and likelihood of impacts under certain scenarios.
There is a newly proposed federal offshore oil and gas lease sale on the horizon that includes the Santa Barbara area, the first since a years-long moratorium. The Department of Interior’s National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (National OCS Program) for 2019-2024 includes the Draft Proposed Program (DPP) for 47 potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 planning areas, with 7 in the Pacific Region. Release of the DPP is an early step in a multi-year process to develop a final National OCS Program for 2019-2024, and many are starting to fight it in Santa Barbara.
As I said, I saw tar on Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara. No one wants a disaster, natural or otherwise…slow motion or otherwise. But things happen, even in Montecito… including an extreme storm that dumps almost half an inch of rain in 5 minutes. We all want to see Montecito and our Butterfly Beach return to its natural beauty. Do you know how much that’s going to cost? We’ll talk about economics in the next blog.
We at SOS would like to go one better – to see its beauty restored without tar from natural oil and gas seeps.
Reducing Natural Oil Seeps
I was called for Jury Duty this week (bet you guessed that from this blog’s title), and it got me thinking. And since this is a blog about oil and gas seeps, by a non-profit that was formed to educate the public about how natural seeps pollute our ocean, beaches, and air – I’m sure you’d guess that I was thinking about how this relates to reducing natural seeps.
But, in all those thought processes, you would be making assumptions, since you haven’t read what’s coming next. OK…you’d be correct, but you can see how our brains work. We are always forming opinions, whether we are aware of it or not. We are also continuously being inundated with information that can influence those opinions, whether the information is true or not. Therefore, it behooves us to apply critical thinking, based on information, so that our analyses of situations and the opinions we form are based on fact, not fiction.
What are your opinions of the oil industry? Is it the negative, knee-jerk “Big Oil” line that comes from so many? The assumption here is that the companies unfairly control our energy use and economy, and provide no benefit. The description of the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World summarizes these sentiments:
What’s past is prologue. How Big Oil Conquered the World recounts the deeply checkered history of the oil industry to form a context for the even more troubling future that awaits an unsuspecting public. In these modern times, they have their fingers in nearly every conceivable pie of influence – from pharmaceuticals to green technologies to education. The scourge of rampant greed, and the continuing emergence of global monopolies, empower these companies with enough leverage to control every facet of our lives, and to make sheep of us all.
First off…not a sheep. I used the term “sentiments” consciously, because I find it surprising that producers of a film are expressing such emotion about an industrial process that employs scientific principles to produce energy – and are calling it a documentary. Has this really been the case, particularly in Santa Barbara, where offshore oil has been shown to reduce oil and gas pollution? And compared to other industrial processes, even those involved in energy production, are oil companies really any different from other operators?
Many of you will be surprised to learn that the “Big Oil” companies own less than 10% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. And the rest? A grand total of 90% of the reserves are owned by the National Oil Companies (NOCs) of countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Mexico, Venezuela, etc.. The NOCs aggressively develop their reserves to improve the economic position of their citizens (the documentary would call this rampant greed), but place environmental issues very much on the back burner. In contrast, visit an operating wellsite anywhere in California and you will find extensive safety and environmental practices that take priority over actual production.
“Big Oil” companies are presumed guilty from many misconceptions about oil exploration.
In Santa Barbara, “Big Oil” companies were presumed guilty of the pollution impact of tar on the beaches and in the air. SOS came on the scene 10 years ago to clear up this and other misconceptions about the impacts of oil exploration and production. As experts in our respective fields, and through consultation with the best researchers in the field, we are aware that, in Santa Barbara, offshore oil and gas production has been shown to reduce pollution from natural oil seeps. That photo is of Venoco’s Platform Holly, which lies in the middle of a seep field that has been a focus of study for researchers at UC Santa Barbara. A 1999 study affirmed the link between natural seep reduction and offshore oil production from Platform Holly. You can bet that the surfer in the photo is happy about that!
But the “Big Oil” company Venoco declared bankruptcy this year. Operations had been shut down since the Plains All American Pipeline spill at Refugio in May 2015, and the company’s efforts to expand operations into an area of the highest volume of oil seepage was likely to be denied.
We stand to lose big as a result. 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. A November 30 article in the Santa Barbara Independent states that, “More than two years after the Refugio Oil Spill, officials at two Santa Barbara County school districts are reporting their campuses have suffered serious negative impacts from the loss of oil production tax revenue.”
I did get excused from that jury, but not before the defense attorney took some time the hammer home this point with us potential members – if you had to choose this minute, based on what you know now, what would your verdict have to be? Not guilty, of course – because of the presumption of innocence provided for as common law, and embodied in several provisions of the US Constitution such as the right to remain silent and the right to a jury. It’s amazing how applicable this concept is many facets of our lives – and how many pre-conceived notions we stand to lose if we put it into practice.
As a player in “Big Oil,” what was Venoco really guilty of? Saving our beaches from the tar that showed up on Hendry’s Beach in early November 2017? We’ve also mentioned the economics. Add to those considerations the fact that Venoco, in particular, showed an incredible commitment to the community. Their Community Partnership program was been a well-known source of needed funding for many of our non-profits.
SOS supports the development of all energy sources, but these are not without their concerns as well. Impacts to birds have been well documented in association with wind and solar projects. So do yourself a favor: try not to be judge AND jury…at least not until you “sniff out” the evidence.
Oil Seeps & Stranger Things
When fall arrives, and the new school year starts, we at SOS California like to do a review of current knowledge about natural gas and oil seeps offshore from Santa Barbara.
But, so far this fall, there have been other topics that have grabbed our attention, including seismic activity along the Ring of Fire and the Venoco decommissioning (with a discussion of the seep tents).
Do you know what reminded me of our usual fall first topic? The release on Netflix of the second season of Stranger Things! Because, what would define an Upside Down more in Santa Barbara than the fact that offshore oil and gas production has been shown to make our offshore, coastal, and air environment better?
Try to explain that to the citizens of this area. Well…that’s exactly what SOS has been doing – going on our 10th year now.
There’s a BIG difference between the situation in our offshore environment and this very creative television show. The show is classed as science fiction. Our non-profit deals solely in science fact.
And here’s where we start. As pointed out by the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, natural oil seeps contribute the highest amount of oil to the marine environment, accounting for 62 percent of the pollution to North American waters and 46 percent of the annual load to the world’s oceans. Although they are entirely natural, these seeps significantly alter the nature of marine environments.
As the NRC points out, it is important to consider the issues of energy and the environment:
The United States and other nations that regularly make decisions regarding energy use spend a significant amount of time examining policies affecting the extraction, transportation, and consumption of petroleum. These policies require balancing economic considerations with the environmental consequences of widespread petroleum use. As has been recognized for some time, petroleum can present a significant risk to marine life. Even a small amount released at the wrong time or place can have a severe impact.
You may hear the argument that oil seeps are natural, not as concentrated as an oil spill, and that the ocean environment has adapted to its chronic presence. But consider this from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Oil from underwater seeps generally behaves like oil spilled during or after extraction, forming large slicks which spread and drift with winds and currents. The slicks can form miles-long lines of black, brown, and tan oil, easily observed from the air. As oil drifts away from seeps and continues to weather, it forms tarballs and mats. In southern California, for example, these may come ashore or be carried more than 100 miles up or down the coast.
This is a particular concern in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Channel produces the second largest volume of oil from natural seeps in the world. We’re only behind the Caspian Sea seeps. Every 12 months, approximately 86,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean along the Santa Barbara coast – the equivalent of the quantity of oil spilled in the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
You may have also heard that oil spills have a much greater impact on the environment than natural seeps. The following is also from NOAA:
Although it comes from a natural source, 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.
As our Co-Founder Lad Handelman is fond of saying, ”An oiled bird can’t tell whether the oil is from a spill or a seep,”
We also want to add that natural seeps release methane. According to ecolife, methane (CH4), is a powerful greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent in trapping gas within the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2). This gas stays in the atmosphere for 9 to 15 years and because it is so much more effective at trapping heat, it has a significant impact on global climate change. In fact, as reported in the 2013 Santa Barbara County Clean Air Plan, methane emissions from natural seeps (between 8,610 and 18,250 tons/year) far exceed methane emissions from all mobile sources (at 4,246 tons/year).
The first study to show conclusively the connection between offshore exploration and seep reduction was published by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The university has a distinct geographic advantage for this type of study – the area of strongest seeps are right offshore, a veritable natural laboratory. The study, entitled Decrease in natural marine
hydrocarbon seepage near Coal Oil Point, California, associated with offshore oil production, showed that oil production from Platform Holly had reduced the natural seepage that is so prolific in the area.
Peltonen and Boles, in their 2015 study in support of Venoco’s effort to extend the lease line of Platform Holly to access formations associated with the most prolific seeps, discovered the following:
A reduction in natural marine hydrocarbon seepage is occurring above the South Ellwood oil field. Decades of development from Platform Holly has led to the production of nearly 80 million barrels of oil and 75 billion cubic feet (BCF) of gas. This 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.
So don’t worry if you see something like those folks on the boat ride saw offshore Santa Barbara – you are not in The Upside Down. You’re just in Santa Barbara! But you might be someone who needs to turn their thinking upside down – to find the solution to our natural petroleum pollution.
No, not that one. It’s an awesome song by an incredible artist.
But we are SOS California. So if we’re talking about natural oil and gas seeps and the Ring of Fire, you can guess that we are talking about…earthquakes.
Yeah… THAT Ring of Fire.
And it’s been in the news a lot lately. There’s been what seems to be an unusual amount of activity in areas that fall under that designation.
But what is it really, and how did it come to be named after a Johnny Cash song?
We all know that the Santa Barbara Channel…well, ALL of California…is an area that is prone to earthquakes. That is because we are on the Ring of Fire. Do you also know that earthquakes can cause big increases in seep flow? No one likes an oil spill, but historical accounts indicate that an oil spill is what has happened during earthquake activity. AND oil and gas production, by reducing seep quantities, can reduce the risk of an increased seep associated with seismic shaking. It all will come full circle (full ring?) back to seeps. Really. Keep reading.
As defined by the National Geographic Society, the Ring of Fire is a string of volcanoes and sites of seismic activity, or earthquakes, around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 90 percent of all earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, as do 75 percent of all active volcanoes on Earth (hence the fire reference). More a 40,000-kilometer (25,000-mile) horseshoe than a ring, it stretches from the southern tip of South America, up along the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, down through Japan, and into New Zealand.
To understand why this is such a geologically active area, it helps to know a bit about plate tectonics. As described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Ocean Service, the Earth is in a constant state of change. Earth’s crust, called the lithosphere, consists of 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates. Earth’s land masses move toward and away from each other at an average rate of about 0.6 inch a year. Some regions, such as coastal California, move quite fast in geologic terms — almost 2 inches each year — relative to the more stable interior of the continental United States. At the “seams” where tectonic plates come in contact, the crustal rocks may grind violently against each other, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Ring of Fire is where the Pacific Plate meets many plates, including our own North American Plate.
Since we are part of this Ring of Fire, when it gets active, we get interested…and we check with the US Geological Survey (USGS). In the past month or so, 12 of the 14 major earthquakes have been on the Ring of Fire, including these five on our side of the Pacific: 6.1 – 17km SSE of Matias Romero, Mexico; 7.1 – 1km ESE of Ayutla, Mexico; 3.6 – 5km NW of Westwood, CA and (September 19); 3.3 – 3km NNE of East Foothills, California (September 15); and 8.1 -100km SW of Tres Picos, Mexico (September 8).
The relatively fast movement of the tectonic plates under California explains the frequent earthquakes that occur here. The San Andreas Fault is one of the most active faults on the Ring of Fire. But we don’t have to wait for a “big one” from that famous fault. The Santa Barbara Channel is plenty active on its own. In its Earthquake Track, the USGS reported that the Channel has been the epicenter or in the area of detection for 0 earthquakes today (as I’m writing this blog), 3 earthquakes in the last month, and 57 in the last year. The most significant in the past month was a magnitude 2.6 centered near Oak View and, in the past year, was a magnitude 4.1 centered in Isla Vista.
But what is the connection between seismicity and seeps? Some historical examples include:
- The Santa Barbara Daily News, in its July 4, 1925, edition, reported that W.H. Schuyler, crossing the channel from Santa Cruz Island, noted “Gaping oil fissures crisscross the channel between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands since the great quake of last Monday have been pouring their oil contents into the sea.”
- An increase in natural oil seepage was noted after the 6.5 magnitude Sylmar quake in 1971, and following a small Ventura event.
- An onshore petroleum seep in the Ojai Valley, California developed as a direct result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
This all relates to the Ring of Fire.
A recent report from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) provides another example. Starting in March 1978 and continuing sporadically through July 1978, a swarm of small earthquakes–called microearthquakes– occurred underneath the northeastern end of the Santa Barbara Channel., Santa Barbara residents complained of an unusually large amount of oil and tar on local beaches in July and early August. A magnitude 5.2 earthquake shook the channel on August 13, 1978.
Arco was producing oil and gas and monitoring seep volume via fabric devices that pre-dated the seep tents, which were installed in 1982. They reported an increase in seep volume prior to the 1978 earthquake.
Why would the action of an earthquake release a seemingly increased volume of natural seepage?
Is the shaking enough to open cracks that are deep enough to access the very formations from which the oil is seeping? Not exactly.
Jim Boles is an Emeritus Professor of Geology, Department of Earth Science at UCSB. As he describes in his study entitled Hydrocarbon Production from the South Ellwood Oil Field (Platform Holly) and the Effects on Naturally Occurring Oil and Gas Seeps, seep oil and gas rise from the formations in which they are pooled to the ocean floor through small pores and fractures. The accumulation of the oil and gas gives the hydrocarbon buoyancy to overcome the drag from contact with small openings in the rock (fractures, pores, etc). Seismic shaking serves to help the hydrocarbon overcome the drag forces. The amount of oil and gas that floats toward the seafloor is dependent on the formation pressure as compared to the pressure from a full ocean of water trying to push it back in. Oil and gas production reduces the pressure in the formation, so it takes less pressure from above to hold the oil and gas back, even though oil and gas are still in the cracks and pores.
Seismic motion in the area of an active seep could, in effect, “break the seal” that holds the oil back. Picture a bottle of Coke – it’s a quiet and closed system until shaken. The shaking would loosen any oil and gas sticking to rock in the small fractures, and disrupt the boundary between seawater and oil within those fissures.
So instead of opening cracks, the phenomenon would be more of oil seeping from existing seafloor sources. As the shaking stops, the releases would eventually as well. This would explain increased seepage and an increase before an earthquake occurs.
We have some updated information on earthquake risk along our coast. A study of the Ventura-Pitas Point Fault, published in Geophysical Research Letters, confirms that the structure of this fault brings it closer to the surface than originally thought, which increases the risk of a stronger quake.
As Dr. Boles’ study concluded, there is clear scientific evidence that hydrocarbon production has reduced naturally occurring oil and gas seepage in the surrounding areas. Removal of hydrocarbon reduces the amount of oil and gas available for seepage, and also results in a reduction in the driving force for hydrocarbon escape. Furthermore, the rate of hydrocarbon extraction from producing wells far exceeds the rate of natural hydrocarbon generation, migration, and accumulation. As a result, reservoir fluid pressure is reduced and the rate of seepage decreases due to the pressure reduction.
Since Platform Holly was shut down after the Refugio spill, we’ve been hearing more and more reports from surfers and offshore workers about increased seep and tar accumulation offshore…in the absence of a major earthquake. The bottom line is that active production of the underlying oil and gas reserves reduces the risk of a spontaneous gush oil and gas that could be produced from any seismic shaking. Platform Holly has not been decommissioned yet. Can we afford to let this opportunity to protect our offshore and coastal environment from chronic pollution – and from a significant release that could come from a seismic event?
There are many ways to be prepared.
At least seep gases in the Barbara Channel are.
Well, you can tell by now that this is one of our SOS California “Isn’t the English language fun?” blogs. But stay with us – you’re about to learn something very interesting about how the offshore oil and gas industry has reduced pollution in Santa Barbara County.
Why Do We Need to Clean Up Oil Seeps?
Was that their intent? Perhaps not. But all companies involved in industrial processes make an effort to provide a service while minimally impacting the environment. They are also legally bound to do so. But, with our unusual petroleum geology in the Santa Barbara Channel, offshore oil producers are reducing pollution by providing an affordable resource – by reducing the natural seeps.
The influx of gases to the atmosphere from natural oil and gas seeps can impact air pollutant levels. A 2015 study by Peltonen and Boles showed that 3 to 7 million cubic feet of gases are released each day from the ocean’s surface in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore from Coal Oil Point. This represents the single largest source of air pollution in Santa Barbara County, greater than that of all vehicle traffic combined. These gases, when exposed to sunlight, form the air pollutants that can negatively affect our health. Of particular concern is ozone, which can damage our lungs.
So it stands to reason that reducing the amount of gas emitted from natural seeps would decrease the amount of ozone flowing into our lungs. Studies have shown that oil and gas production reduces seepage. The most distinct evidence comes from the history of the seep tents.
Not those kind of tents! Let us explain….
How Oil Seep Tents Help Reduce Pollution
The Seep Containment Project was developed in 1982 by ARCO and several other partners to capture the large concentrations of naturally seeping gas. The photo shows one of the tents. Two of these 50-foot high steel pyramids (which weigh 900,000 pounds each and measure 100 feet by 100 feet) were positioned on the ocean floor over the strongest seep within the company’s lease. They were originally placed to collect gas as a mitigation for emissions. However, they have provided an incredible opportunity to monitor the effects of oil production on the quantity of natural gas being released by the seeps.
NoozHawk published an article recently, in response to a reader question. According to their interview with UCSB researchers, “Captured gas is sent ashore through a sea floor pipeline for commercial sale, and oil is periodically removed at the tents.”
Oil Seep Tents in Santa Barbara Need Repairs to Keep Helping
NoozHawk also spoke with California state government experts. According to California State Lands Commission spokeswoman Sheri Pemberton, the two seep tents have not been in service in recent years because of reduced seep activity and some degradation.
The existing leases, properties, and associated facilities for the oil and gas operations offshore from Goleta that include Platform Holly and the seep tents are owned and operated by Venoco, Inc. (Venoco). Venoco has declared bankruptcy, stopped operations at Platform Holly, and quitclaimed its South Ellwood Field leases back to the state. Ms. Pemberton said that the seep tents will be addressed as part of the decommissioning plan and environmental impact report.
These structures have been sitting on the ocean floor for 35 years. Anyone who has seen a photo of a shipwreck can imagine that there has been some breakdown of materials and, even with maintenance, coverage by organisms. The challenges of dealing with degraded materials could certainly add to the cost of decommissioning. There has been some discussion about allowing the tents to remain in place – whether that becomes a viable alternative remains to be seen.
It is important to note that, in the NoozHawk interview, Ms. Pemberton stated the following: “Empiric evidence suggests that seep activity will continue to increase in the immediate area because production ceased.” Have to put that one in bold.
According to Poltonen and Boles, and the studies they reviewed, decades of production led to significant reduction in reservoir pressure ultimately resulting in the cessation of seep activity measured within the tents in late 2013. Now here’s the real breath of fresh air. The study showed that Platform Holly had resulted in significant improvement to local air quality. At peak, the tents captured over 150 million cubic feet of seeping gas per day. This is equal to the amount of air pollution associated with tens of thousands of automobiles. To date the seep tents have captured 6 billion cubic feet of gas.
Talk about intense!
Have a Crude (Oil Product) Day!
Can you imagine the reaction if this were your daily greeting?
But, in reality, most of us are already having crude oil products all the time in our day to day. Because, when refined, crude oil is the basis for many of our life’s conveniences…and necessities.
The refining process is important, of course, because crude oil is…well, you get the idea. (Gotta have a little fun!)
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), crude oil and other liquids produced from fossil fuels are refined into petroleum products that people use for many different purposes. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are also used as petroleum products, mainly in mixtures with gasoline and diesel fuel. The United States consumes more energy from petroleum than from any other energy source. In 2015, total U.S. petroleum consumption was about 19 million barrels per day (b/d), the equivalent of about 36 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States. We use petroleum products to propel vehicles, heat buildings, and to produce electricity. The petrochemical industry uses petroleum as a raw material (a feedstock) to make products such as plastics, polyurethane, solvents, and hundreds of other intermediate and end-user goods.
When Anna Wegis was an engineering student at University of Southern California (USC) in 2001, she wrote an article entitled A World of Petroleum for Illumin, the school’s engineering journal. She described the morning routine of a typical student:
The student is awakened by a petroleum product (her alarm clock), is wearing petroleum (her pajamas), and uses petroleum to turn on the light (the light switch). She has a convenient shower thanks to petroleum (the water pipes and shower curtain), washes her hair with petroleum (shampoo), and then applies petroleum to make her skin soft (lotion). Next, the student inserts soft contact lenses and uses a contact lens case, hair curlers, lipstick, deodorant, perfume, a comb, and toothpaste, all of which are petrochemical products. During the hour, she also watched the television, which is made in part from petroleum. On the way to school, she drove in petroleum (the body of her sports-car) and used petroleum to get there (fuel).
In the interests of honest reporting, there has been some pushback on the use of crude oil products since 2001, when this was published. But how different do you think this routine, and the use of crude oil products, is in 2017?
We all know about gasoline. We also all know that there are those who would prefer that their cars be powered by something other than gasoline. The technologies for vehicle propulsion are advancing, with improvements in electric vehicles and the development of a hydrogen-based system. But is gasoline the only crude oil product that is used in cars? Are the ones that claim to be hydrocarbon-free really that way if they can’t function without some form of crude oil product?
As Chris Woodyard wrote in an article for USA Today entitled Motor oil makers get ready for the electric-car age, “…any new-age energy saving device that rotates, turns or spins is going to need grease. Think windmills. For another, automakers are demanding new kinds of lubricants as their high-tech fuel-saving efforts evolve.”
So, that make sense, that crude oil products would still be used in vehicles and machinery (including alternative energy machinery). What else is there? The barrel graphic, based on US Department of Energy (DOE) data, shows how the rest is used. 18% goes to the 6,000 other products.
An article entitled The Truth About Petrolatum in the Canadian magazine Best Health reviews the benefits of crude oil products in the health and beauty industry and addresses the concerns. As the article states, chemist Robert Chesebrough started the process of distilling and cleaning the thick gel found on oil wells in the 1850s. By 1870, petroleum jelly (also called petrolatum) in the form of Vaseline was being sold in the United States. While some beauty companies are promoting petrolatum alternatives, other manufacturers swear by its ability to moisturize and heal. Petrolatum used in cosmetic and personal care products sold in Canada is also a highly refined grade and must meet all of the standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Says Paul Hughes, technical manager for Unilever Canada, maker of Vaseline, ‘Some people are creating fear among consumers by telling only part of the story.’
Plastics are also a crude oil product and, according to the American Chemistry Council, a very beneficial one. In medicine, sterile plastic packaging and disposable medical items-have helped prevent countless infections, one of the world’s leading causes of death. And, being strong and lightweight, plastics enable us to do more with less. Plastic packaging helps to dramatically extend the shelf life of fresh foods and beverages while allowing us to ship more product with less packaging material-reducing both food and packaging waste. Plastic insulation, sealants, and other building products are making our homes significantly more energy efficient, while reducing costs for heating and cooling. And lightweight plastics in cars can dramatically increase miles per gallon, saving drivers money at the pump.
This being California, we can’t forget to mention surfboards. You know our USC student picked up one at the end of the day. According to the DOE, almost all surfboards are made from fossil fuel-derived polyurethane foam (though researchers are testing foam from algae).
But be sure to dispose of plastics correctly. Use that recycle bin: it’s shown in the graphic below…with other crude oil products.
Yes…it’s an SOS California blog. You know what we’re talking about when we say BLACK GOLD. We’re talking about…license plates.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) instituted a program to distribute Legacy License Plates. Legislation introduced the California Legacy License Plate program offering vehicle owners the opportunity to purchase replicas of California license plates similar to those issued in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Only the 1960s plate reached the required 7,500 minimum orders before January 1, 2015. The Press Release in June 2015 stated that the plates were released so, “California drivers can relive those nostalgic memories from the 1960s with Legacy License Plates.”
1960s California nostalgia…how fun! Surfing, woodies, Beach Boys…what great memories and the pure definition of California culture for the rest of the country and even the world. But is that the full history of the black and gold license plate? How did license plates come to include color schemes, and how did California become associated with black and gold?
A Los Angeles Magazine article provides some background. New York was the first state to require automobiles have license plates, beginning in 1901. At the time, individual owners were expected to make their own plates. In 1956, the U.S. government came to an agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association that fixed the size for license plates for automobiles. From 1963 to 1969, California-issued license plates featured gold numbers on a black non-reflective paint with an embossed state name.
Gary Richards, the author of an article about the plate’s return in The Mercury News, said that these retro plates are popular, “Because they look so cool. For me, they recall the fun days of watching Edd Byrnes play “Cookie,” a protégé to private eye Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in “77 Sunset Strip.” That was a weekly must-watch when I was a kid.”
The resurrection of legacy plates was first introduced by CA Assemblyman Mike Gatto. He was quoted in Newswire as saying “Aside from not salting our roads, California doesn’t often do much for automobile enthusiasts. This is an easy way for the state to enable everyone from the backyard restorer to the nostalgic, to the purchaser of a retro-styled automobile to add that extra bit of detail for those of us who appreciate the classic era of automobile design.”
Mr Gatto’s legislative director Aaron Moreno told Hemmings Daily that “The molds were just sitting there in Folsom prison. And when the people at the prison heard we were trying to get this program started, they dusted the molds off and saw that they could still be used.”
All this is very interesting, but what about the connection to California’s other Black Gold? Well, that’s turning out to be a much more difficult thing to pin down. Could it be that Californians are now hesitant to admit that a part of their history celebrated the importance of oil and gas production?
Economic Benefits of Oil
Oil and gas production surely is California’s black gold. The Paleontological Research Institution points out that many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Like oil reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, a hint of what lay beneath the surface could be seen in the many above ground oil seeps. These seeps had been known by Native Americans for thousands of years. In 1900, the state of California produced 4 million barrels. In 1910, this had jumped to 77 million barrels. In spite of this increased production, many of the fields were beginning to see slowdowns in their production rates in the late 1910’s, and Californians wondered if their oil boom was reaching an end. But before that would happen, 3 major fields were discovered in rapid succession – Huntington Beach (1920), Santa Fe Springs (1921), and the biggest of them all, the Signal Hill, or Long Beach, Field in 1921.
Because of the abundance of this natural resource, Black Gold in California has meant literally…gold. Oil exploration and production has, throughout our history, provided funding for so many aspects of the lifestyle we enjoy. To quote Jeff Wing, from his article in the Sentinel where he points out that oil money funded Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, “There is oil money all over the place driving scientific discovery and public curiosity about the larger world. Think of it as a different kind of spill.” The spill he discusses in the March 10th issue of the Sentinel started with Alice Keck Park’s father, William Myron Keck, who was the founder of Superior Oil Company. You might notice that most National Public Radio (NPR) programs begin by acknowledging funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation. Interesting. Other beneficiaries include the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Moana Key, Hawaii.
Positive Outcomes of Oil Production in California
But we’re keeping it local. Revenues from oil and gas produced in Santa Barbara County were even used to build – the Santa Barbara County Courthouse!! According to the National Park Service, fortuitous petroleum strikes occurred at Ellwood along the coastline of southern Santa Barbara County in 1928. Tax revenues from the oil-bearing lands were transferred to the courthouse fund allowing construction to proceed nonstop until completion in March 1929.
Then there is the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF), administered by the County of Santa Barbara. The County established CREF in 1987 to consolidate permit conditions for each of the County-approved offshore oil and gas projects, namely the Point Arguello, Santa Ynez Unit, Point Pedernales, Gaviota Terminal, and Molino Gas projects. Each project pays into CREF as project mitigation, and the County awards grants to enhance coastal aesthetics, coastal recreation, coastal tourism, and environmentally sensitive coastal resources. Santa Barbara County has awarded 297 grants for a total of approximately $22.4 million for projects, as follows:
• A little less than half: to acquire coastal properties or conservation easements. For example, CREF helped purchase key bluff-top properties, such as the Carpinteria Bluffs, the Douglas property in the city of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Shores in Ellwood, and Point Sal near Guadalupe. It also helped to acquire properties that protect environmentally sensitive coastal habitats, such as Burton Mesa chaparral near Lompoc, Monarch butterfly foraging habitat in Ellwood, and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh.
• The second largest amount: to develop or improve coastal parks and other coastal-related facilities such as the Cabrillo Aquarium near Lompoc, the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, and the Watershed Resource Center at Arroyo Burro Beach.
Why are Legacy Plates Black and Gold?
So it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the state had honored this history in the color scheme of the Black Gold license plate, and celebrated the return of this legacy. A Santa Barbara local told us, “I believe California in the 50s came out with the black and gold because of the OIL we have–Black Gold!–which has built our state and communities. The new plates are very popular, you see them everywhere and they look nice. But I wonder if any of these people with the new plates actually like local oil production and realize they’re acknowledging its value in this way?”
What an excellent question! Hey blog readers… what do you know about the Black Gold plates? Where are our classic car enthusiasts? We know you follow this topic, especially for your favorite-era vehicles. How about all you surfers, even those who did not grow up listening to the Beach Boys? We would LOVE to hear from all of you about California’s black gold…send us your stories!
With regard to Santa Barbara’s natural seeps, we at SOS think it’s too bad they don’t provide license to drill.
Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Energy | All Aboard
Be it planes, trains, or automobiles… or boats or buses… all aboard is the universal cry this summer travel season. The one thing these modes of transportation have in common? They all need energy to run.
We are at a time in our energy evolution when there are options. Wind, solar, and the more recently developing wave energy are all becoming more viable options. To some they are preferable, because of concerns about carbon. But…
Are we really the point where we can supply all of our energy needs from just renewables?
A June 21 article in The New York Times entitled Traditional Sources of Energy Have Role in Renewable Future discusses this issue. The article’s author, Eduardo Porter, reports on two recent studies – one from 2015 that states that the US could be powered by 100 percent wind, wave and solar (WWS) by 2050, and the just-published response that asserts that we will need all energy sources for much longer.
We are certainly grappling with these issues locally.
Mr. Porter of the NY Times pointed out that, for too long, climate advocacy and policy have been infected by a hope that the energy transformation before us can be achieved deeply and virtuously – in harmony with nature. But the transformation is very likely to be costly. And though sun, wind, and water are likely to account for a much larger share of the nation’s energy supply, less palatable technologies are likely to play a part.
The photo below is of the Block Island Wind Farm, the Deepwater Wind project in the Atlantic Ocean offshore from Block Island, New York. Does this really meet the “harmony with nature” test? But I digress…
Mr. Porter’s comments describe Santa Barbara so well. But in Santa Barbara, the perceived “less palatable” energy source is the one that is improving the environment. Which brings us to Venoco.
In an opinion piece in the Santa Barbara News Press of Sunday June 25, Goleta resident Hector Mon describes how this issue is playing out in our own community. He states that a lack of ingenuity in how to balance economic and environmental concerns is “really stacking up.” He points out that many locals are happy about the prospect of Platform Holly’s decommissioning. But, as he says, ”It now looks like getting rid of Holly won’t be so simple. It is estimated that the cost of its decommissioning will exceed $100 million and the state is questioning its ability to foot the bill.” While there have been objections to the industrial offshore structure and oil and gas in general, he points out that, “By the same token, Holly and Venoco also provided locals with good jobs and paid hefty taxes to local and state governments. It has even been argued that it helped reduce natural oil seepage and made beaches more enjoyable.”
Renewable Vs Nonrenewable Energy Study Comparison
This real-world scenario provides on interesting example of the issues brought up by the modeling and analyses of the two conflicting studies. Both were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The first study, entitled Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes is by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. His study asserts that it would be eminently feasible to power the American economy by midcentury almost entirely with energy from wind, sun, and water. What’s more, he believes it would be cheaper than running on fossil fuels.
The researchers of the responding study (a group of 21, from varying disciplines, led by Christopher Clack, chief executive of the grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy), are of the opinion that relying on 100 percent wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could make climate mitigation more difficult and more expensive than it needs to be. Their study, entitled Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar shows that it is important to understand the distinction between physical possibility and feasibility in the real world.
Energy Consumption Projections in the United States
In evaluating our energy future, SOS consults data projections and analyses by a number of sources, but particularly those generated by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).Their Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) is published pursuant to the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, which requires the EIA Administrator to prepare annual reports on trends and projections for energy use and supply. The projections are based on their Reference Case (without variables) and compare historic and likely future energy consumption by source, as shown in the graph below.
According to the 2017 AEO, natural gas production accounts for nearly 40 percent of US energy production by 2040. Since 2005, technologies to more efficiently produce natural gas from shale and tight formations have driven prices down, spurring growth in consumption and net exports. Near-term production growth is supported by large, capital-intensive projects, such as new liquefaction export terminals and petrochemical plants, built in response to low natural gas prices. US natural gas consumption is expected to increase during much of the projection period.
In an article in NGI’s Daly Price Index, entitled NatGas Prospects Burn Bright in EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2017, EIA administrator was quoted as saying, “Natural gas production, we think, is actually going to go up quite a bit, with relatively low and stable prices, so that’s going to support higher levels of domestic consumption, especially in the electric power and industrial sectors, where we think there will be quite a bit of natural gas use,” EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski said in Washington, DC.
As for renewables, non-hydroelectric renewable energy production grows, reflecting cost reductions and existing policies at the federal and state level that promote the use of wind and solar energy. In the electric power sector, coal-fired plants are replaced primarily with new natural gas, solar, and wind capacity, which reduces electricity-related CO2 emissions. Notice that natural gas is still in this mix.
What’s the Most Efficient Source of Energy?
As EIA has stated, though, even as renewables rise, fossil fuels continue to dominate the US energy mix. Fossil fuels have provided more than 80 percent of total US energy consumption for more than 100 years. In 2016, fossil fuels accounted for 81 percent of total US energy consumption, the lowest fossil fuel share in the past century. In 2016, the renewable share of energy consumption in the United States was 10.5 percent. The greatest growth in renewables over the past decade has been in solar and wind electricity generation. EIA projects that they will continue to grow, as the graph shows, but to nowhere near the levels predicted by Dr. Jacobsen.
SOS has been educating the public on the idea that changing the nation’s primary energy source is a long-term process, and that the benefits of oil and gas exploration in Santa Barbara in particular are stronger than other locations because of the reduction in seep pollution. Our experience tells us that a significant technological breakthrough in the coming years could, by 2040/2050, provide us with a source of clean energy that far surpasses WWS – and that offshore oil production could be our energy bridge in the meantime.
So as Holly fades into the sunset… can we agree that “All Aboard” is the best way to move toward a secure energy future?
Raise in California Gas Tax | NOPE
Well, Grumpy Cat doesn’t like anything.
But according to a poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (Berkeley IGS), the majority of voters agree with Grumpy Cat – at least on the subject of the newly passed California state gas tax.
But first –what gas tax? And what is a Berkeley IGS?
According to the state’s website, SB 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, invests $52.4 billion over the next decade to fix roads, freeways and bridges in communities across California and put more dollars toward transit and safety. We know that we have infrastructure issues. So what do Californians say?
The way to find out is to ask the Berkeley IGS. The IGS Poll is a periodic survey of California public opinion on important matters of politics, public policy, and public issues. The poll, which is disseminated widely, seeks to provide a broad measure of contemporary public opinion, and to generate data for subsequent scholarly analysis.
That’s what makes the recent poll so interesting. In a state that tends to approve of things like gas taxes, Mark DiCamillo, the Director of the Berkeley IGS reports that a majority of voters oppose the state’s new gas tax law, 39% strongly. He explains the process:
Registered voters in the latest Berkeley IGS Poll were read a summary of the new law and asked whether they favored or opposed it. The results indicate that opponents of the new law outnumber supporters by twenty-three points, 58% to 35%. In addition, nearly three times as many voters strongly oppose the law (39%) as are strongly supportive (14%). Opposition is broad-based and includes large majorities of Republicans and No Party Preference voters, political conservatives and moderates, voters in all major regions of the state other than the Bay Area, all major races and ethnic subgroups, men and women, and all age categories over 30.
And one cat.
Christopher Cadelago of the Sacramento Bee summarized the poll results in graphic form. He spoke directly with the aforementioned poll director, who said that the bottom line is that people don’t like to have their taxes increased. Mr. DiCamillo recalled how the late pollster Mervin Field, who chronicled public opinion for decades in California, was fond of saying that the pocketbook nerve is the most sensitive political nerve in a person’s body.
Reasons for Increased California Gas Tax
First – what are excise taxes and how are they applied to fuels? The Internal Revenue Service defines excise taxes as those paid when purchases are made on a specific good, such as gasoline. Excise taxes are often included in the price of the product. The State of California collects a base excise tax on each gallon of gasoline. In addition, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Board of Equalization (BOE) annually sets a variable excise tax on gasoline. The BOE sets the rate considering both gasoline price and quantity sold, in an effort to mimic a sales tax.
So what are the increases? The LA Times reports that the legislation would raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, bringing it to 30 cents. Another variable excise tax would be set at 17 cents. The excise tax on diesel fuel would jump 20 cents per gallon and the sales tax on diesel would go up 4 percentage points. Electric cars would pay a $100 annual fee. The package also creates a new, annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.
But we at SOS like to present both sides. What are those who approve of this approach to infrastructure improvements saying? The San Diego Union Tribune reported on supporters of the bill, who generally have pointed to the need to dramatically upgrade California’s transportation infrastructure. Reporter Rob Nikolewski spoke with the head of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce who estimated that each dollar spent on roads, highway and bridge improvements results in $5.20 in lower car repairs and road maintenance costs while improving fuel consumption and road safety. Analysis of the bill in Sacramento said rough roads result in each driver in California spending about $700 a year in extra vehicle repairs.
But isn’t the Current Gas Price in California High Enough?
It is common knowledge that Californians pay more at the pump, on average, than residents in most other states. The Santa Barbara News Press provides gasbuddy data on Santa Barbara gas prices compared to the national average. As of Friday June 16, 2017, Santa Barbara’s lowest price was $2.71 compared to the national average of $2.34 for regular. Tom Scott, Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business/California told the Pasadena Star-News that working families and low-wage workers will be hit the hardest when they are forced to pay more for gasoline, goods and services. And he pointed out that, “the 50-cent-per-hour pay bump minimum wage workers got with SB 3 last year will instantly be erased by the tax increases in SB 1. And next year they’re supposed to be getting another 50 cents. Well, that’s gone too.”
Other opponents of the tax increase agree that there is a disproportionate financial impact on low-wage earners. LA Times reported that Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) said the tax hikes will hurt small businesses and low-income families, who he said would have to choose between buying gas or food. “Are you really going to increase taxes on the families who are struggling in this state every single day?” Stone asked. These issues of social justice are important to highlight with regard to any costs to be incurred by the general public as a result of any project (check out that gas pump!).
A potential complication, with gas price impacts, could be the upcoming debate on the renewal of the cap-and-trade program. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review, cap-and-trade systems are market-based mechanisms that allow companies to bid on a limited number of allowances for producing greenhouse gases, which tick down over time to lower total emissions. Under the program that first went into effect in 2013, California holds quarterly auctions for large power plants, factories, and fuel distributors with a rising price floor. SB 1 included a 12-cent hike in the base excise tax on gasoline. Extending the cap-and-trade program could mean an additional gasoline price increase of between 24 and 73 cents per gallon by 2031, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
An LA Times report on cap-and-trade quoted Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Riverside) also noted financial impacts for those in her district. She said, “A lot of my families in the district do have to drive long distances to work, it’s hard for my district to get access to clean vehicles” that require less gas.
How Oil Production Can Help
Of course, one way to defray costs of infrastructure improvements, while reducing greenhouse gasses, would be offshore oil production. Santa Barbara County alone is looking at a loss of $74 million with an estimated 3-year shutdown of the Plains All-American Pipeline, according to California Economic Forecast Director Mark Schneipp. With that loss, the County may try to pursue funding elsewhere – perhaps the state? And reducing natural seeps by oil production has been shown, offshore Santa Barbara, to reduce the natural seeps’ production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Hmm…a funding source that also reduces greenhouse gasses – but doesn’t impose burdens on the people of the state? Don’t think a gas tax meets all of those requirements.
Hey – Grumpy was right!