Fire and Rain

Fire and Rain

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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.

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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.”

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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.