Offshore Nuances: Santa Barbara's Problematic Oil Seeps
By Bill Moore
Wealthy, seriously-upscale Santa Barbara -- where homes average a million dollars -- sits at the epicenter of the second largest natural offshore oil seep on the planet. Only the Caspian Sea surpasses it.
In the national debate about opening up more of America's offshore regions to oil and gas drilling -- and setting aside the problem of carbon dioxide-induced climate change -- a sixty mile long stretch of coastline that reaches roughly from Ventura Country west north west to San Luis Obispo Country, well south of the Big Sur coast, has some 2,000 active sea floor oil seeps. According to former JPL physicist Bruce Allen, the tectonically active zone is estimated to have leaked some 800 million barrels of oil over the last 10,000 years.
Now a resident of Santa Barbara and a member of the air quality board, Allen -- who is writing a book on energy policy -- discovered during the course of his research that in the 38 years since the moratorium on oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel and off-shore California, an estimated 900 barrels of crude oil have leaked from the production platforms visible off the the coast. In contrast, he points out, the seeps have leaked an estimated two million barrels.
This not only represents an economic loss of some $280 million dollars at today's prices, but more importantly, it represents a serious environmental and public health problem.
Besides fouling Santa Barbara's beaches, Allen discovered a serious hydrocarbon air pollution problem. His wife works at the UC Santa Barbara campus, so he asked for air quality data for the campus and discovered that the level of airborne hydrocarbon contaminates can be as high as 10-times that of Los Angeles. He said that most Santa Barbara residents are surprised to learn that their oil problem -- and gasoline is now selling for more than $5 a gallon around town -- is a natural one, not man-made.
He also points out that when the seas in the channel are calm, it's possible to see a 50 square mile oil slick from the air as you fly into and out of the Santa Barbara airport; all of it the result of being located on an active major geological fault line that releases trapped petroleum, which has been estimated at 13 billion recoverable barrels for the Pacific Coast region back when oil was $55 a barrel.
Allen stresses that he views the crude oil fields off of Santa Barbara as a special case distinct from other fields off Florida and Alaska, and have unique issues compared to other offshore oil resources. As his book, which is currently in manuscript and nearing completion , will show, he believes that ultimately solar thermal electricity is the most promising clean, renewable energy source on the near horizon. He sees vast fields of solar collectors in the desert bringing down the cost of electric power generation to $2.50-2.75 a watt. Some of the excess solar-generated heat would be stored in molten salt that can then be used to create steam to generate electricity at night. Such plants located in the American desert southwest would then transmit their power through high voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines similar to the 800-mile long line that carries 6,500 megawatts -- equal to the output of six nuclear power plants -- from hydro dams deep in Brazil's interior to its major urban centers.
With up to an estimated $350 billion in oil royalties (at $138/barrel) at stake, Allen and his supporters are calling for an end to the California moratorium. Given the offshore oil industry's safety record over the last 38 years, his group believes the oil can be extracted safely, which will reduce in natural oil and gas seepage, resulting in environmental benefits. Gradually depleting the oil over 25 years will not only reduce the amount of seepage that is polluting the water and air off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, but will provide the funds needed to develop the state's solar economy. Allen notes that the state is presently running a deficit and its much-touted million solar roofs and other renewable energy programs are underfunded . Potential royalties of up to 18% from the Santa Barbara fields could generate enough funds to allow the state to go largely solar electric by 2035, Allen estimates.
It is, clearly, a nuanced position for an avowed environmentalist to take at a time when the public has little patience for such subtle arguments, not when they're paying $4-5 a gallon for gasoline. Still, it certainly seems to make sense in a highly pragmatic way.
At least John McCain's staff was listening last week when they stopped in Santa Barbara for an Energy Roundtable. Whether they understood the import of this particular nuance remains to be seen.
Bruce Allen co-founded a non-profit, soscalifornia.org, along with Lad Handelman, the founder of Oceaneering International, to address the issue of oil seeps and offshore oil production in Santa Barbara County.
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