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.