imageMuch of the South Coast’s oil drilling operations developed from the initial discovery of oil seeps. (Sonia Fernandez photo / Noozhawk)

Step onto a beach anywhere in the area and it’s likely that sand won’t be the only thing squishing between your toes. Tar balls – those pesky black, sticky chunks that stick to your flip-flops, ruin your neoprene wet suit and pretty much get on everything you lay on the sand – are part of a beachgoer’s life on the South Coast.

The source? Oil seeps, onshore and off.

“Floating tar patties can travel for up to hundreds of miles from Santa Barbara, some ending up in Malibu and north of Monterey,” said Dr. John Day, a planner with the Santa Barbara County Energy Division.

Oil seeps have been around for ages. The Chumash Indians used the tar from them to waterproof canoes and create tools. According to the late local historian Walker Tompkins, the petroleum-laden winds from coastal waters once were thought to be therapeutic and helped create Santa Barbara’s long-standing reputation as a resort town. And, of course, where there’s an oil seep, there’s oil. Much of the South Coast’s oil drilling operations developed from the initial discovery of seeps.

An oil seep, Day says, is a location where oil is released from the ground or the sea floor from a reservoir beneath the rock.

“My understanding is that the oil rises up through a combination of pressure underground and buoyancy of the oil compared to subsurface water,” Day said.

Seeps can be gradual or release suddenly and intermittently, he said. Offshore, oil seeps can vary in composition, location and seep rate – from tiny bubbles to thick ropes as the oil works its way to the surface.

The oil that makes it to the surface gives the water an iridescent sheen, as the oil undergoes wind and wave action, hydrocarbon evaporation and consumption by microorganisms on its way to becoming tar balls.

One of the world’s most prolific concentrations of seeps is outside UC Santa Barbara, at the aptly named Coal Oil Point. An estimated average of 100 barrels (4,200 gallons) of oil is said to seep out every day from 2,000 locations, although the amount of seepage varies greatly with tides, seismic activity, even rainfall.

And it’s not just oil. Natural gas bubbles up from the same fissures and cracks in the ocean floor, up to 200,000 cubic meters per day. In 1982, several oil companies, including ARCO and Mobil, put down seep tents on the ocean floor to capture the gas. The operation now belongs to Venoco.

At least one local group is concerned about the amount of seepage from the ocean floor and the pollution problems it creates for the environment.

“The amount of oil that seeps out into the Channel every year is about equal to the amount of oil spilled in 1969,” said Judy Rossiter, executive director of SOS California Inc., an environmental group with a decidedly different take on oil production. The spill from Platform A in 1969 was the event that sparked the region’s environmental movement.

Taking their cue from a 1999 UCSB study that found links between oil extraction and decreased seepage, the founders of SOS California – Lad Handelman, a longtime commercial diver and founder of Cal Dive International and Oceaneering International, and physicist Bruce Allen, who has decades of experience in space systems project management – are looking to decrease the amount of seepage from Coal Oil Point by decreasing the pressure that causes the seepage.

“You could link improving the environment with production of oil off the coast of California,” Allen said. By expanding oil production, and taking the pressure off the cracks and fissure, the natural seeps that cause water and air pollution in the region would decrease, he said.

“It’s not just about more money, though,” Allen said. “It’s about what we can do with that money.” Some of the money would come back to the county in the form of royalties, which the county could use to backfill its strained budget, he said. “There could be programs to ease the transition away from petroleum into alternative fuels,” he said.

SOS California still will have to work hard to convince local dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists such as Get Oil Out, which formed directly as a result of the 1969 blowout.

“You can’t look at the issue in a vacuum,” GOO representative Carla Frisk said. For GOO, the risk is in the presence of oil rigs. Any spill, she said, would negate any beneficial effects oil extraction might have on the air and in the Channel waters.

Similarly, the county is skeptical that increased oil and gas extraction ultimately would have a significant affect on the amount of seepage.

“There is pretty good indirect evidence that oil production from Platform Holly has reduced seepage in the immediate vicinity of the platform. I think that’s about all you can say with any confidence,” Day said. He says the oil from the seepage and the oil pumped out may not be from the same source. Furthermore, oil producers often inject produced water and gas into the oil reservoir to increase pressure, he said.

Despite those arguments, Allen maintains that the likelihood of decreased seepage is greater than what the county and anti-oil environmentalists think.

“The best peer-reviewed science out of UCSB showed there appears to be a strong connection between oil production and seepage reduction,” he said. “That now appears to be the primary likelihood.”

Regardless of whether increased production of oil proves to be the more environmentally sensible choice, the increasing price of oil and its falling supply will become more of a concern. The debate continues.

Residents can join the discussion May 31, as the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History hosts a panel discussion on the topic. Day, SOS California and local environmental groups plan to attend.