The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors recently voted to adopt a Climate Action Plan as a symbolic gesture to reduce greenhouse emissions in portions of the county. The practical effect of their plan is to increases taxes, regulations, home inspections and expenses on county residents even though their action plan actually does nothing to improve the county’s environment or citizens’ health. It does, however, succeed in building a bigger county bureaucracy.
One particularly glaring omission in the county staff report was to not list any emissions of the county’s second largest greenhouse gas emission source: the prolific natural offshore methane gas and oil seeps that are California’s largest methane emission source. Methane is 21 times more potent a greenhouse gas than Co2. The seeps also leak approximately 80,000 barrels of oil pollution into coastal waters and beaches every year.
The offshore seep greenhouse gas emissions dwarf all other county emissions except transportation. The reason given in the staff report for completely omitting the offshore seeps in their inventory was that the county has no influence over them. The county does, however, have the ability to influence policies that do affect the seep emissions. The county did include transportation sources even though it has no regulatory power over transportation sources, since those are regulated at the state level.
At the Board of Supervisors’ hearing, the board refused to even consider an SOS California Action Plan strategy to improve the long-term environment for residents by reducing one of the largest hydrocarbon air pollution and greenhouse gas emission sources in the county: the offshore oil and gas seeps, which release approximately 400,000 tons per year of Co2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, and 6,200 tons of reactive organic gas air pollutants (and the 80,000 barrels of oil per year into our marine environment).
The Board of Supervisors’ Climate Action Plan omission of all of the offshore seep gas pollutants and seep greenhouse gas emissions inventory was even more glaring in that the seep gases dwarf all of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions the county plan actually intends to tax and regulate. At the same time, it never acknowledges the fact that legacy offshore oil and gas production has significantly reduced the offshore oil and gas seep pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Barbara for the last 40-plus years.
How do we know the offshore seeps are a major source of local air pollution and greenhouse gases? The most detailed air quality study ever conducted in the county (Journal of Applied Meteorology & Climatology, May 1991) identified the seeps and transportation as Santa Barbara’s two dominate air pollution sources with quantitative estimates. The county’s staff report oddly only referred indirectly to the offshore seeps in a section of the report titled “biological sources,” even though the 1991 Santa Barbara air pollution study found through chemical signature analysis that biologicals only contributed 4 percent to the county’s air pollution.
Would additional targeted offshore oil and gas extraction actually further reduce the offshore seep pollutants? UC Santa Barbara studies led by professor (emeritus) James Boles and Scot Hornafius have shown offshore seep pollution has been significantly reduced by offshore oil and gas production and that the most active remaining seeps are in unleased areas. The remaining prolific seeps and their pollution could be reduced by targeted offshore extraction.
This issue raises a fundamental question for the community and elected officials: Is it more important to oppose any additional offshore oil production, or is it more important to have a cleaner environment for the long term even if the only way to reduce the offshore seep pollution is through additional targeted oil extraction?
It should be noted that by making California more dependent on foreign oil for the next several decades we are actually increasing foreign tanker transportation greenhouse gas emissions by several million tons per year, in addition to sending additional billions of dollars overseas. These are billions of dollars we won’t have to help build and invest in renewable infrastructure or to fund important educational programs.
Anyone walking our beaches the last 50 years has seen the large reduction of tar and oil on their feet from offshore production, but didn’t know a major air pollution source was also being reduced. Some have argued that the link between offshore oil production and seep reductions is not “proven,” yet the linkage is strongly correlated given long-term seep study conclusions, geologists and petroleum engineering opinions, and a lifetime of observations by thousands of Santa Barbara residents (including mine) watching the presence of oil and tar on our beaches slowly diminishing over the last 50 years as oil production continues to drain the adjacent seep zone areas.
The hundreds of birds that are oiled and killed every year by local natural oil seepage don’t seem to be acknowledged or addressed in any of the Board of Supervisors’ previous action plans. Neither do beachgoers and surfers who are frequently tarred by seepage pollution.
Why do some members of the Board of Supervisors, other elected officials and some local environmental groups never support county hearings on action plan options that would evaluate offshore production’s ability to reduce offshore natural seepage pollution long term while generating revenues and jobs for county residents, schools and services?
Boles has stated publicly that there is no question the seeps are a large source of coastal pollution, they are reduced by adjacent offshore production, and many of the remaining active seeps would likely see their pollution reduced by targeted offshore production. Much of the production could even occur with existing infrastructure.
California is seeing a transition to renewable energy sources with cars like the Tesla Model S, and ever increasingly efficient solar technologies like Sunpower’s new X-Model 21.5 percent efficient PV panels, but California will be highly dependent on oil and gas for many decades. Much of the oil consumed in California will continue to be used for nontransportation purposes.
Let’s encourage a majority of the Board of Supervisors to hold a hearing to consider an action plan that actually reduces local beach and air pollution for the long term. Reducing the seeps through extraction would reduce oil imports, stop a future county bankruptcy, reduce never-ending seep-oiled bird deaths, and clean up Santa Barbara’s air and water for the next 1,000 years. Environmentalism in Santa Barbara should be about the long term. That’s a Climate Action Plan worth considering.
— 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 Reaching the Solar Tipping Point.