The press for more offshore drilling has opened a rift among California environmentalists. Many are calling for increased oil recovery to reduce the amount of natural oil seepage, while others continue to fear the risk of major spills.
In Santa Barbara, a new environmentalist group, Stop Oil Seeps (SOS California), has formed to call for renewed dialogue on the issue, in an effort to reduce oil pollution of the sea and nearby shorelines and provide revenue for alternative energy incentives.
Santa Barbara is home to the largest natural oil and gas seepages in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest and most active in the world. According to the California State Lands Commission, there are more than 2,000 active underwater seeps along the California coast, with more than 1,200 in the Santa Barbara channel alone.
The Santa Barbara Channel was the scene of a major offshore oil drilling accident in 1969, when a blowout on the ocean floor caused widespread damage to marine life and the nearby coast. The blowout and resulting damage led to calls for bans on offshore oil recovery, ultimately leading to congressional and administrative moratoria that persist to this day. The accident also sparked the establishment of Earth Day, an annual environmental event.
Bruce Allen, head of SOS California, told a May 31 Santa Barbara town hall forum that the amount of oil that has seeped naturally into the ocean since 1970 is 31 times the amount spilled in the 1969 accident, which has been estimated at 3 million gallons.
Natural Beach Muck
University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) professor Bruce Luyendyk told the town hall forum that some reductions in natural seepage have been achieved by offshore production, such as at Platform Holly, which reduces reservoir pressure.
Luyendyk says that seeps–not spills–are responsible for most of the oil mucking up the beaches along the Santa Barbara Channel. For example, seeps off Coal Oil Point near UCSB put an average of 4,200 gallons (one thousand barrels) of oil into the ocean every day.
To put that number in perspective, Luyendyk noted, in a span of “five or six years” the amount of oil that comes out of these seeps equals “an Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill,” the disaster that dumped 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska in 1989.
Oil is not the only thing seeping from the seabed. Natural gas bubbles up from the same fissures–approximately 100,000 cubic meters per day. “That translates into about 3 million cubic feet a day,” Luyendyk said. “Your typical household uses 250 cubic feet of gas a day.”
Green Group Supports Drilling
For an environmental group, Allen’s organization advocates an unorthodox way to deal with the seeps. The orthodox way, some would say, is getting oil rigs out of the ocean.
Speaking to the Santa Barbara News Press, however, Allen stated, “There is significant evidence oil extraction can reduce oil seepage.” He cited a 1999 UCSB study that found links between offshore oil production and decreased seepage.
Allen noted research suggesting offshore oil spills are responsible for less contamination than natural oil seepage, and he encouraged people to be more open-minded about the environmental pros and cons of oil recovery.
“People who say we can’t drill our way out of this problem simply haven’t bothered to do the math, at least here in California,” Allen said in an interview for this story. “With the increased royalty revenue from $140 oil, California offshore drilling could fund much of its conversion needs for solar energy, electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids.
“And two billion of the estimated 13 billion barrels offshore in California is already discovered but off-limits because of the moratorium,” Allen added, “which we could start producing safely in a few years and lower America’s dependence on foreign oil. You only find energy solutions when you look for them.”
Tom Tanton ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.