Ecological Oil Drilling: Addressing Oil Seepage in California
“How much oil seeps out from the ocean floor — and into the environment — around the Santa Barbara area? SOS California identifies offshore Santa Barbara as having “the second largest marine oil seeps in the world.” Centered around an area referred to as Coal Oil Point, some 10,000 gallons of crude oil seep from approximately 1,200 fissures in the ocean floor in any given 24-hour period.”
- Sylvia Cochran, “Natural Oil Seeps Harm Birds off California Coast, March 8, 2012.
This April 25, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Chilly North Sea Comes Back to Life: New Technology Is Set to Liberate Natural Gas That for 25 Years Was Trapped Beneath Sea Floor,” tells the story of significant advances in deep sea drilling technologies.
If companies can discover, drill, and deliver oil from stormy North Sea locations, why can’t firms similarly find and drill oil from Santa Barbara and other offshore California oil fields?
But environmentalists, as well as average citizens, fear offshore oil spills and oil-drenched sea birds–and that gets back to the Santa Barbara oil spill (1969), the third largest in history after the Deepwater Horizon (2010) and Exxon Valdez (1989) spills.
Natural Oil Seeps
Yes, it is a tragedy when seabirds and other animals are caught in manmade oil spills. But what about natural oil seeps?
This February 2013 incident and story– “The San Pedro-based International Bird Rescue[IBR]‘s Los Angeles center has received 77 oiled birds”–concerns an oil seep off California. According to this article:
Natural oil seepage occurs in several places along the Southern California coast, including Coal Oil Point in the Santa Barbara Channel, the world’s largest natural seep emitting thousands of gallons of oil daily, according to the IBR, which has been helping seabirds and other aquatic birds around the world since 1971.
New Technology, New Opportunities
The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill led to a strong political backlash blocking new oil exploration and drilling offshore in California. But much has changed on the technology front in 34 years. Both automobiles and oil drilling have become far safer and less polluting. If you don’t believe me, just take a ride in a 1969 Malibu.
Allowing new oil exploration and drilling technologies to be deployed off the California coast could focus first on reducing natural seepage by relieving pressures that pushes oil and gas out into Santa Barbara and other California waters.
As these operations prove themselves not only to generate revenue but to reduce natural oil seepage, California residents will feel more confident allowing additional oil and gas production.
SOS California is one organization promoting oil and gas operations to reduce seepage. USGAS has a page on oil and gas seepage. The Heartland Institute has documented a failed 2009 effort to allow oil seepage reduction efforts.
According to this 1999 press release from the University of California at Santa Barbara:
Most of the seepage is methane, a potent greenhouse gas which escapes into the atmosphere…. About 10 percent of the seepage is composed of “higher hydrocarbons,” or reactive organic gases which interact with tailpipe emissions and sunlight, creating air pollution.
The researchers state that the production rate of these naturally-occurring reactive organic gases is equal to twice the emission rate from all the on-road vehicle traffic in Santa Barbara County in 1990.
According to the articles, studies of the area around Platform Holly showed a 50 percent decrease in natural seepage over 22 years. The researchers show that as the oil was pumped out the reservoir, pressure that drives the seepage dropped.
Protecting marine ecosystems by reducing the chance of spills from offshore oil production would be a good thing. Offshore drilling technologies and know-how advance as billions of dollars are invested developing new fields in the North Sea.
The governments of the UK and Norway are not known to be lax about environmental issues. New technologies developed and deployed for North Sea and other modern ocean drilling can be transferred to offshore California drilling. These technologies reduce the likelihood of another Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Recent global estimates of crude-oil seepage rates suggest that about 47% of crude oil currently entering the marine environment is from natural seeps, whereas 53% results from leaks and spills during the extraction, transportation, re?ning, storage, and utilization of petroleum.
California has actually had some ecological drilling, although only in exchange for shutting down other offshore operations. But this is not a zero-sum game economically or ecologically.
Offshore drilling and production in California will not only generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, while adding jobs and giving oil and gas users more domestic supply. California’s coastal waters and wildlife would no longer have to confront many thousands of barrels of petroleum seepage each year.
This opportunity is unique and worthy of full disclosure and discussion in the Sunshine State.