And they say California doesn’t have seasons…

Johnny Carson once described the California seasons – he said they are earthquake, fire, and mudslide. That was during a particularly rainy winter, after a particularly bad fire season, when the rain washed away mud from fire-scorched hillsides, then poured it through houses in Malibu and into the Pacific Ocean.

In Santa Barbara during the last week of May 2013, we experienced a combination of seasons: fire and earthquake.

  • The White Fire started Memorial Day in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and burned nearly 2,000 acres – and ruined my summer camping plans!
  • The following Thursday, a 4.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the coast – epicenter was offshore, about 3 miles west of Isla Vista, near University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB 2013).

We call this Shake-N-Bake – people have even been heard, during really hot weather and those famous Santa Barbara sundowners – saying “Uh Oh – earthquake weather.”

These people are JOKING – or expressing an oddness in the air.


BUT… we at SOS said “Uh Oh!” – for another reason. Because there IS a connection between earthquakes and seep flow. And this quake occurred in an area where the seeps are most apparent.

Venoco Inc., received an inquiry regarding the most recent earthquake off Isla Vista. Their staff geologist responded by saying that the 4.8 magnitude event that occurred on May 29 at 07:38 PDT was a normal tectonic event (Venoco 2013).

His comments covered a number of issues regarding seeps, seismic activity, and oil production that we want to address in this blog.


California is located in one of the most active tectonic regions in the world. Earthquakes are a common occurrence in California, including the Santa Barbara Channel. There is an established history of significant earthquakes that have occurred in the Santa Barbara area (e.g. 1812, 1883, 1925, 1941, 1978) (Venoco 2013).

So what is the connection between seeps and earthquakes?

According to Dr. Ed Keller, professor in the Departments of Earth Science and Geography, and in the Environmental Studies Program at UCSB, earthquakes in the seep areas are expected to occur, and can increase seep flow, as follows:

  • Earthquakes in the mid-to high-magnitude 6 range are moderate events, but we can expect larger earthquakes at some time in the future.
  • In the earthquake of August 13, 1978, which was a magnitude 5.9 event that occurred offshore off Goleta point…the acceleration, or intensity of shaking, caused the Marine Science Building to shift about one inch on its foundation.
  • Santa Barbara and the Channel are part of the so-called ‘earthquake hot zone.’
  • Frequent moderate to large earthquakes characterize this zone.
  • The most serious seismic hazard is in the Santa Barbara Channel.
  • Once an earthquake occurs in the Channel, we would soon know about it (Keller 2008).

A 1977 State Lands Commission (SLC) staff report echoes Dr. Keller’s findings. The report stated that intense seepage frequently occurs near intersections of faults.  With respect to seismicity and seepage, SLC staff reported that:

  • A band of high seismicity coincides with the southern extent of the coastal Santa Barbara oil and tar seep province.
  • Following the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, the Santa Barbara Channel was reportedly covered by thick patches of oil.
  • Active faults occur within several miles of the shoreline along better than 90% of the coast between Point Arguello and San Diego.
  • It is known that a very widespread slick covered a large area of the eastern Santa Barbara Channel during early October 1974, and fouled the eastern channel beaches on October 3, 4, and 5.
  • There were also reports of widespread slicks in 1975 and 1976 (SLC 1977).


James M. Galloway, a geologist with the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Region of the federal agency now called Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM), stated that “Santa Barbara County is more highly vulnerable to a marine biological mega-catastrophe than virtually any other location on the planet. No other metropolis sits adjacent to so many sea floor fractures which overlay such huge subterranean oil deposits. Local geologists agree Santa Barbara will experience larger seismic activity. Should a large quake occur offshore, even no stronger than the 1925 quake, history may repeat itself and as reported by early sea-goers, ‘the entire sea will [again] be black with oil’.”

So we have shown that the Santa Barbara Channel is naturally a seismically active area and that there is a connection between earthquakes and increased seepage.

A misconception still exists – that oil production could cause an earthquake.  To understand how unlikely this is, one must understand the forces and distances involved. Again, from Venoco’s geologist:


Oil production at South Ellwood had no impact or relation to the (May 29, 2013 earthquake) event. The subject earthquake occurred at a depth of approximately 5 miles (>25,000 feet). Production at South Ellwood occurs at depths less than 1 mile. The lateral distance of separation between the platform and the epicenter (surface location) was approximately 2 miles (Venoco 2013).


Venoco’s geologist goes on to reference a targeted studied (that he called the most complete and only study to date) by Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP) of their Inglewood Oil Field. Before-during-and-after measurements of vibration and seismicity, including analysis of data from the permanently installed California Institute of Technology accelerometer at the Baldwin Hills, indicated that their activities had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes).  The report stated that any effects of oil field operations are much shallower than the zones typically associated with earthquake epicenters along the Newport-Inglewood Fault zone (PXP 2012).

But this blog entry is called Shake-N-Bake. How do seismicity and seeps relate to our impending fire season – and seasons to come?

Venoco’s geologist makes the connection between their Ellwood Field production and seeps.


One of the significant impacts from Ellwood production is the reduction of the natural seeps. A UCSB professor completed a study on that issue several years ago (Venoco 2013).


We’ve already shown in previous blog posts that an economic benefit could be realized by Santa Barbara county services from tax revenue and royalties from that production. Mark Schniepp, head of the Goleta-based California Economic Forecast, has stated that “We need a new (job) engine.” Schniepp said if California used its vast, untapped oil and natural gas deposits during the next 40 years, it would have billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of thousands of new jobs (Santa Barbara View 2012).

One of the services that could be supported is fire protection, and we would ALL benefit.

A March 2012 Santa Barbara Independent article addressed Santa Barbara County funding struggles with regard to the Fire Department.  It stated that “As Santa Barbara County heads into fire season — with high winds and hot temps passing through town this week — officials have been trying to put out their own fire that’s been burning a hole in the county’s budget.

Capital needs are growing, staffing has been reduced, and on the heels of a report that says County Fire faces a $1.8-million deficit for this coming fiscal year to keep services at their current level, a gap that will grow to almost $15 million four years from now, the Board of Supervisors decided to shift money around to aid the ailing department in the form of an increased allocation of property tax revenue. …The problem, of course, is that when money is given to one agency, it is taken from somewhere else.”

This issue was addressed more recently in a Santa Barbara News-Press article published on June 13, 2013.   Thea article stated that County firefighters could take longer to respond to emergencies if staff reductions presented to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors are approved. The article quoted Michael Dyer, County Fire Chief, whose opinion is that budget cuts would reduce the department’s response and ability to address critical situations.

We all know what this fire season has brought thus far so why should any of our county departments be limited…as we continue to Shake-N-Bake … and seep?


  1. Galloway, J.M.   Geologist, Pacific OCS Region, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

  3. Keller 2008. History of Santa Barbara Earthquakes.  Dr. Ed Keller, UCSB Dr. Ed Keller Department of Earth Science, UCSB.  Santa Barbara News-Press, August 18, 2008.

  5. State Lands Commission. (SLC) 1977. California Offshore Gas, Oil and Tar Seeps.

  7. Venoco 2013. Personal communication with Lisa Rivas., Government Relations Manager.

  9. Cardno ENTRIX

  11. PXP 2012. Hydraulic Fracturing Study PXP Inglewood Oil Field.

  13. Santa Barbara View 2012. Santa Barbara Business Beat, Ray Estrada. November 9, 2012.

  15. UCSB 2013.


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