Friday, June 22 , 2018, 7:48 pm | Fair 62º


Bruce Allen: Chile Quake Triggers Reflections on Santa Barbara Coast

Offshore oil and gas seeps are often fueled by seismic events — to devastating effect

The devastating earthquakes in Chile and Haiti are reminders that quakes are also a natural phenomenon on the Santa Barbara coast. The last, most destructive earthquake in Santa Barbara was 1925’s magnitude-6.3 temblor that damaged many historic landmarks and knocked down large numbers of buildings. Many California cities will always be at risk from large earthquakes. Santa Barbara County, however, has one of the most unique earthquake-generated phenomena in the world.

Off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are more than 1,600 naturally occurring oil and gas seeps. These seeps overlay large oil and gas resources that are pressurized and, over time, leak oil and gas through subsea fissures into coastal waters. They have been doing this for well over 100,000 years.

The famed 1925 earthquake knocked down buildings all over Santa Barbara. State Street was in ruins. What is less well-known is that the ‘25 quake caused the waters in the Santa Barbara Channel to erupt in a boiling stew of oil and gas from fissures in the sea bed. For miles, the coastline and beaches were inundated.

Santa Barbara’s natural history has always been tied to the sea and to the offshore seeps — the second largest in the world. Each year these seeps release about 80,000 barrels of crude oil and tar into marine waters from Ventura to near San Luis Obispo, compared to only 850 barrels spilled as a result of offshore production along the entire California coast in the last 40 years.

The 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake was the first in California to cause significant casualties and damage after the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Estimates put the magnitude of the 1925 quake at 6.3. The best estimates of its epicenter placed it “in the Santa Barbara Channel area,” according to new reports at the time.

The magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile on Feb. 27 released more than 1,000 times the energy of the 1925 Santa Barbara quake. When the next large Santa Barbara quake will occur and its magnitude can only be the subject of speculation — the fact that large earthquakes off our coast will occur repeatedly in the future, releasing large amounts of oil, is a certainty.

No other region in the world has the unique confluence of active offshore faults and large shallow offshore oil and gas fields overlaid by active seeps near heavily populated coastline.

The Santa Barbara Daily News, in its July 4, 1925, edition, reported: “Gaping oil fissures crisscross the channel between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands since the great quake of last Monday have been pouring their oil contents into the sea, according to W.H. Schuyler of Oak Park, who has just returned from Fry’s Harbor.

“We were on Santa Cruz Island when the quake started,” said Schuyler, “and at first supposed the noise we heard was a schooner coming in. Then the ground began to roll and rocks to tumble from the cliffs.

“We started across the channel and ran into oil spread like a heavy film on the surface of the sea for miles, and oil bubbling from the sea bottom. In some places in the channel there always have been some traces of oil, but in all my experience with the channel I have never seen such a spread of oil over the surface of the sea as we went through on our way hurrying back from the islands to Santa Barbara.”

After the 1971 Sylmar quake, with a magnitude of 6.5, new offshore seeps were observed in previously unrecorded areas.

Even small earthquakes off the California coast can cause oil seepage increases and new slicks. In August 1998, the Coast Guard reported an oil slick off the coast of Ventura that was caused by a magnitude-1.9 quake.

Despite some suggestions to the contrary, most wildlife off the Santa Barbara coast has not “adapted” to this local seep oil. A recent doctoral dissertation by Heather Coleman at UCSB, “Ecological Consequences of Natural Oil Contamination,” concluded that sea urchins (and presumably most other invertebrates) have not adapted to this seep-oil pollution and show dramatic declines in reproductive health in the vicinity of these offshore seeps. Hundreds of sea birds are also oiled and killed each year from these same seeps.

The Chumash learned to make good use of this natural oil resource. They used oil, tar and bitumen from both onshore and offshore seeps as a base for paints, paving, roofing and waterproofing their canoes. The Chumash were witnesses to many coastal earthquake episodes that suddenly poured additional oil into local coastal waters. Wildlife has been witness to these events for many more millennia.

Oil and tar was as much a part of the Chumash natural world as any other resource found on the Central and South Coast. For the Chumash, oil and tar was a tradable commodity and integral part of their culture.

We know from published research, modern geology and lifelong observations that offshore oil and gas production has been slowly drying up this natural seepage pollution. Producing these pressurized offshore oil and gas fields also lessens the amount of oil that will be released through future earthquake activity.

These currently off-limits offshore resources amount to billions of barrels of producible oil, enough to make California foreign-oil independent for decades and generate large tax revenues for Santa Barbara and California residents. Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast, has estimated future California tax receipts could exceed $40 billion and bring more than $350 million per year to the Santa Barbara County budget. Our offshore resources could actually pay for our transition to renewable energy. Offshore production has made California beaches cleaner by reducing seep oil.

Expanded production might even be good earthquake preparedness planning — and pay us dividends for the privilege.

— Bruce Allen is co-founder of SOS California, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization devoted to public education on offshore oil and gas, environmental and renewable energy issues. He is the author of the recently published book, Reaching the Solar Tipping Point (2009).

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