Why On Earth??

Why On Earth??

April is the month our nation celebrates Earth Day. As we Santa Barbara locals know, the first Earth Day was in 1970, mere months after the event that inspired it – the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969.


Uh oh – why on earth would a non-profit that supports ongoing oil and gas exploration and production want to highlight the first polluting incident that made the country look negatively at that very industry?


Why on earth, indeed…


Exactly!!!  It’s because of the earth – and the fact that we care about its health and sustenance as much as any other Santa Barbara-based environmental non-profit – that we started our organization six years ago and, more recently, this blog.


Earth Day started a movement that galvanized a nation, and rightly so. The reaction to the 1969 spill was also the impetus behind the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, as amended (Pub. L. 91-190, 42 U.S.C. 4321-4347, January 1, 1970, as amended by Pub. L. 94-52, July 3, 1975, Pub. L. 94-83, August 9, 1975, and Pub. L. 97-258, § 4(b), Sept. 13, 1982) (CEQ 2013). NEPA requires the formal evaluation of the environmental impact of any federal action. California was one of the first states to follow suit, and passed the parallel California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for state project review (California Public Resources Code [Sections 21000 et.al.]) (State of California 2013). For California, this meant that every state or federal oil and gas project planned in California would be evaluated for impacts on air, water, geology, biological resources, cultural resources, and economics. It also required that alternatives to the proposed action (including no action) be created and evaluated, and that the public would have input. Mitigations could be proposed, but would likely not win approval in the process unless they reduced impacts to minimal.


Why on earth bring up legislation that reviews oil industry projects? Because it’s important to evaluate the impact to the earth from human activities.


AND because, in California, NEPA and CEQA review applies to ALL projects – not just oil and gas.


The fact that seems to get lost in any discussion of oil versus renewables is that every project has impacts. The challenge is to find the project that provides the desired outcome with the least environmental impact.


SO – how on earth do we get the energy we need to support the US economy and our lives without negatively impacting the planet?


Well, we all know that, with the risk of spills, drilling for oil is bad – right? Especially in Santa Barbara, since we already had that big spill – right?  Why on earth would we want oil drilling in Santa Barbara?


An important part of NEPA and CEQA is siting – the right project for the right location. Santa Barbara has the second largest natural oil seeps in the world. No one wants an oil spill, because it is bad for the environment. But, in Santa Barbara, oil is constantly spilling into the environment. It is estimated that oil seepage for a single 6-mile stretch, including Coal Oil Point, averages 10,000 gallons (240 barrels) of oil each day. Every 12 months, about 86,000 barrels of oil seep into the ocean – the equivalent of the quantity released during the 1969 spill (soscalifornia.org).  In addition, hydrocarbon offshore seeps are the largest source on air pollution in Santa Barbara County (APCD 2007).


Studies have shown that oil exploration reduces the rate of seepage. Hornafius et al. (1999) studied marine hydrocarbon seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel, and stated, “The decrease in hydrocarbon seepage rate near platform Holly, possibly due to the reduction in subsurface reservoir pressure, suggests that oil production here has resulted in unexpected benefit to the atmosphere and the marine environment….On a local level a reduction in seepage due to oil production can have a profound effect on the air and water quality.”


An accidental spill would be just that – a possible outcome of a project but not the intention of the project. In fact, a blowout such as that which occurred in 1969 is now a remote possibility given the significant improvements in technology over the last four decades.


But why on earth would anyone support oil drilling when renewables are so much less polluting overall?


Californians have high expectations for their state’s renewable energy programs. California Energy Commission’s (CEC’s) 2004 Integrated Energy Policy Report Update recommends a goal of 33 percent renewable energy by 2020.  Santa Barbara’s local Community Environmental Council’s initiative is “Fossil Free by ’33.”  However, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts U.S. energy demand will grow by 14 percent between 2008 and 2035, with more than half of the energy demand expected to be met by oil and natural gas, as is the case today. Renewables are expected to grow rapidly between now and 2035 with EIA forecasts showing biomass and other renewables increasing by 110 percent. Despite the rapid growth and because they are starting from such a small base, renewables are expected to supply just about 14 percent of the nation’s energy needs by 2035 (API 2010).


Let’s take a look at what’s available…


Wind Energy – Californians have equally high expectations for protection of the state’s diverse bird and bat populations. The Altamont Pass wind project is iconic in the state and was the subject of an article in Wired magazine in 2005, at a time when the potential impacts were coming to light. It seems that, even though Altamont Pass is known for its strong winds, it also lies on an important bird migration route, and its grass-covered hills provide food for several types of raptors. The article quotes Jeff Miller, a wildlife advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (http://www.biologicaldiversity.org) who states “It’s the worst possible place to put a wind farm…It’s responsible for an astronomical level of bird kills.” As an environmental organization, the Center for Biological Diversity ‘supports the development of alternative energy sources as a way to reduce our impact on the environment, including reducing greenhouse emissions and protecting wildlife habitat. However, some wind power facilities, such as the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (APWRA) in eastern Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, California, are causing severe environmental impacts to raptor populations due to bird kills from collisions with turbines and electrocution on power lines.’ The CEC, along with the California Department of Fish and Game, has since developed California Guidelines for Reducing Impacts to Birds and Bats from Wind Energy Development to address the coexisting and sometimes conflicting objectives: to encourage the development of wind energy in the state while minimizing and mitigating harm to birds and bats.


Wave EnergyHydrokinetic energy from tidal, current, and wave sources represents immense potential for electrical energy generation. Lagging behind the development of technology and movements to identify the location of coastal wave energy facilities, however, has been the assessment of potential impacts. Any renewable ocean energy project will have associated environmental effects. Construction processes and site preparation, deployment, operation, power transmission, servicing, decommissioning, and the physical structures of the wave energy devices and the mooring systems all may have an uncertain level of impact on the marine environment (Boehlert et al. 2008).


Solar Energy – Development of large tracts of land up to several thousand acres for solar energy facilities and related infrastructure could result in impacts. These could include modification of surface and groundwater flow systems, water contamination resulting from chemical leaks or spills, and water quality degradation by runoff or excessive withdrawals of groundwater. Total removal of vegetation is possible at most facilities, and could result in significant direct impacts in terms of increased risk of invasive species introduction, changes in species composition and distribution, as well as habitat loss.  Numerous wildlife species would be adversely affected by loss of habitat, disturbance, loss of food and prey species, loss of breeding areas, effects on movement and migration, introduction of new species, habitat fragmentation, and changes in water availability (BLM and USDOI 2012). Impacts on special-status species, including species of desert tortoise, are of particular concern. From a conservation standpoint, one of the most important species in the desert Southwest is Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act in 1990. The flat-tailed horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcalli) is a species of special concern on the Coachella Valley because of solar energy development. The federally protected Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard (Uma inorata) also occurs in this area (Lovich and Ennen 2011). Solar thermal projects with wet-cooling systems require large volumes of water, with potentially significant environmental impacts (BLM and USDOI 2012).


Even organizations that view oil & gas use negatively report that even renewable energy development and use can impact the environment. The Union of Concerned Scientists provides information on their website on the Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies. The group states that all energy sources have some impact on our environment. The exact type and intensity of environmental impacts varies depending on the specific technology used, the geographic location, and a number of other factors. By understanding the current and potential environmental issues associated with each renewable energy source, we can takes steps to effectively avoid or minimize these impacts as they become a larger portion of our electric supply.


The situation offshore Santa Barbara provides an interesting example of environmental impact associated with energy development. Here, the environmental impact occurs when the energy source is NOT developed.


A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Rise in US gas production fuels unexpected plunge in omissions” states that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen 12% between 2005 and 2012 and are at their lowest level since 1994. The significant increase in natural gas production is resulting in less coal being utilized for electricity generation.  And that increase in gas production is the result of new technology — fracking/horizontal drilling — over the last five years.


Also, the technologies associated with renewable energy have not necessarily reached a high enough level of development to be economically feasible.  At ECO:nomics, the Wall Street Journal’s annual business and environment conference, held at the Bacara, Tony Posawatz, President and CEO of electric car company Fisker Automotive, stated “Just because it’s a good idea doesn’t make it a good investment…This has been a noble way to lose money.” Current renewables are not cost-effective – producing existing resources such as those offshore Santa Barbara buys us time for these new technologies to be developed and introduced.


No one is saying we don’t need energy, and in every form that’s feasible.  We have many options – the challenge for each location is to determine the source that provides the most energy for the least environmental impact. In Santa Barbara, right now, that is oil. In other areas, it may be renewables.


If we can afford them. Oil and gas exploration off Santa Barbara could help with that part, too.



Air Pollution Control District (APCD) 2007. 2007 Clean Air Plan. Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District and Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. Final. August.


Boehlert, G. W, G. R. McMurray, and C. E. Tortorici (editors). 2008. Ecological effects of wave energy in the Pacific Northwest. U.S. Dept. Commerce, NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-F/SPO-92, 174 p. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/tm/


Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Energy 2012. Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States. Executive Summary, July 2012. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of Energy,  FES 12-24 • DOE/EIS-0403.


California Energy Commission’s 2004.  Integrated Energy Policy Report Update


California Energy Commission and California Department of Fish and Game. 2007.

California Guidelines for Reducing Impacts to Birds and Bats from Wind Energy Development.

Commission Final Report. California Energy Commission, Renewables Committee, and

Energy Facilities Siting Division, and California Department of Fish and Game,

Resources Management and Policy Division. CEC‐700‐2007‐008‐CMF.

Wired 2005.  “Unexpected Downside of Wind Power” Will Wade. October 14, 2005.


Center for Biological Diversity http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/protecting_birds_of_prey_at_altamont_pass/pdfs/factsheet.pdf


Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) 2013. http://ceq.hss.doe.gov/index.html.


Hornafius, S., Quigley, D., and Luyendyk, ZB.P. 1999. The world’s most spectacular marine hydrocarbon seeps (Coal Oil Point, Santa Barbara Channel, California): Quantification of emissions. Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 104, No. C9, Pages 20,703 – 20,711.eptember 15, 1999. Institute for Crustal Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.


Lovieh, J. and Ennen, J. Wildlife Conservation and Solar Energy Development in the Desert Southwest, United States. BioScience, Vol 61, No.12 (December 2011), pp. 982-992


State of California 2013. Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.



Union of Concerned Scientists


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