Oil Under the Sea Seeps Out
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 off-shore California oil fields?
The central reason I think is that environmentalists as well as average citizens believe offshore oil drilling will lead to offshore oil spills and oil-drenched sea birds like those shown in the picture at right.
Yes, it is a tragedy when seabirds are caught in oil spills. These birds are from a February incident and story: “The San Pedro-based International Bird Rescue[IBR]’s Los Angeles center has received 77 oiled birds.”
In this case though, the oil spill was an oil seep, and a natural one off the California coast. According to the 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.
The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill led to a strong political backlash blocking new oil exploration and drilling offshore in California. But a lot has changed on the technology front since 1969. 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.
This Heartland Institute article reports on a failed 2009 effort to allow oil seepage reduction efforts. The state of California could gain millions in tax revenue, additional jobs would be created, and oil and gas users would have one more source of domestic supply. Plus, California’s coastal waters and wildlife would no longer have to absorb the many thousands of gallons of oil and gas seepage each year.
Most of the seepage is methane, a potent greenhouse gas which escapes into the atmosphere, said Luyendyk. 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 knowhow 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.
The reality of natural oil and gas seeps provides another reason to deploy these technologies in California waters. According to this 2003 study, about half of oil released into marine ecosystems is from oil seeps rather than oil spills:
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, reﬁning, storage, and utilization of petroleum.