Presumed Innocent.

Presumed Innocent.


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.