Sale of the Century
It sure is! And, as a property owner, some of the proceeds will go to YOU!
No, we’re not talking about the early-1970s game show (or its 1980s reboot). We’re talking about a new opportunity to benefit from the resources off our coast, while supporting the health of the marine and coastal environment.
The National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program (National OCS Program) for oil and gas development establishes a schedule of oil and gas lease sales proposed for planning areas of the US OCS. As directed in Executive Order 13795 (April 28, 2017) and Secretary’s Order 3350 (May 1, 2017), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is initiating a process to develop a new National OCS Program for 2019-2024 (replacing the 2017-2022 Program). The first of three proposals for 2019–2024, the Draft Proposed Program (DPP), was released on January 4, 2018.
SOS has reviewed and, of course, commented on the DPP. The next stage of the process will address requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), specifically the preparation of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The DPP states that “The NEPA analysis will include an evaluation of the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts associated with the proposed lease sale schedule, and how those impacts could vary depending on the areas or regions that are included in the National OCS Program.”
What is of greatest interest to locals is that oil and gas leasing for exploration and production in the Santa Barbara Channel is proposed for inclusion in this sale and the impacts will be analyzed in the Programmatic EIS. The Santa Barbara Channel is within the Southern California Planning Area, one of four in the Pacific Region Planning Area. Environmental, economic, and other planning factors are included in the discussions of this region. In our comments, we encouraged BOEM to also include an analysis of the natural oil and gas seeps in the Southern California Planning Area discussions, and address the potential for offshore oil and gas exploration and production to reduce the environmental impact of natural seeps.
How did the Santa Barbara Channel become known as an area that had oil and gas reserves? It was from the proliferation of natural oil and gas seeps. The photo shows a tar blob, determined to be from natural oil seeps that appeared on Arroyo Burro (local known as Hendry’s) Beach in November 2017. According to a study by the National Research Council (NRC) of the US National Academy of Sciences, the number one source of petroleum pollution in US waters is natural oil seepage – 62 percent compared to less than 1 percent from oil industry activity. The largest natural oil and gas seeps 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. It is estimated that oil seepage averages 10,000 gallons (240 barrels) each day, which means that every 12 months about 86,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean—the equivalent of the quantity of oil in the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara. Further, every four years the amount of oil polluting our ocean is the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The impacts of this release from seeps are substantial, and come from the oil itself and from natural gas. SOS research has documented the number of seabird and marine mammals impacted by the oil from natural seeps each year. The International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) knows, from 40 years of experience, to anticipate seeing birds every year that have been oiled by encounters with Santa Barbara’s natural oil seeps. Fur-bearing marine mammals are also particularly vulnerable to seep oil.
And the gas? As seep bubbles rise to the ocean surface, substantial amounts of hydrocarbons dissolve in the water column, forming a subsurface gradient of dissolved hydrocarbons – principally methane. The remaining seep bubbles that do not dissolve continue to the surface and burst, releasing the gaseous components to the atmosphere. According to the County of Santa Barbara Energy Division, natural seeps constitute a major source of air pollution and of atmospheric methane (a greenhouse gas). They contribute 23.6 tons per day of Reactive Organic Compounds (ROCs). The contribution of ozone precursors from natural gas seeps is of a quantity higher than for all mobile sources (automobiles, trucks, etc.) in Santa Barbara County.
But here’s the good news. For over a decade, SOS educational material and research has documented the fact that California offshore oil and gas production has been drying up seepage pollution. Peer-reviewed published reports document the connection between existing Santa Barbara offshore oil production and natural seepage pollution reductions over the last 20 years and the larger natural seepage pollution reduction potential through expanded offshore oil and gas production.
Who doesn’t love a sale – especially when it benefits the environment? There’s always a catch…
Opposition to the proposed lease sales off California’s coast is focused on the premise that the order could result in catastrophic environmental events. Frequent reference is made to those that have occurred in Pacific waters; the 1969 blowout in Santa Barbara Channel, the Valdez oil spill, and the 2015 Refugio pipeline break. We will address each of these events in a subsequent SOS blog, and include comparisons of actual-versus-perceived long-term impacts. SOS understands that it is seep pollution that represents an ongoing environmental catastrophe happening in slow motion.
In 2009 it was estimated that developing known offshore California reserves could approach $1 trillion in value. While that statement was made at a time when crude oil was selling for $100 per barrel, today’s $60 per barrel or barrel price would still translate into $600 billion of economic benefit to Californians. There have been no new oil leases in federal waters along California’s coast for more than 30 years and none in state waters for more than 50 years. The estimates of undeveloped oil and gas reserves offshore California are based upon decades-old seismic technology. Awarding new leases would allow for an assessment of reserves using current 4D technology, which could indicate a significantly larger reservoir potential. Further, it appears that development of wells in federal waters could be accomplished by slant drilling (as shown in the graphic) from existing platforms and processed through existing infrastructure in an environmentally safe manner. Perhaps most importantly, the existence of seeps allows for a pressure release that makes offshore California formations less prone to the blowout risk associated with developing high-pressured reservoirs.
We started SOS California in 2007 as a way to educate the public about the environmental damage caused by natural oil and gas seep pollution in the Santa Barbara Channel and of the economic benefits of offshore development. Section 7.1.2 of the DPP discusses Environmental Setting and Ecological Characteristics of the Pacific OCS Planning Region. It includes the statement that, “BOEM received a nomination to exclude the Santa Barbara Channel from leasing consideration.” We would like to suggest the opposite – that the way to reduce pollution in the Santa Barbara Channel would be to include it in the leasing program.
You can access the full SOS California submission to the Department of the Interior on our website, soscalifornia.org.