Jane Van Ryan
Posted March 23, 2010
In today's episode, I interview Bruce Allen, physicist and co-founder of SOS California, about his research on natural oil seeps and the positive impact oil and natural gas production has on California's coastal environment. Bruce says studies show Santa Barbara's offshore production reduces naturally occurring oil seeps, helping to decrease water pollution and improve air quality.
Use the audio player below to listen to information about the article and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.
00:18 Did you know that 63 percent of hydrocarbon pollution in U.S. waters comes from naturally occurring oil seeps? And less than 1 percent comes from offshore production? That's according to the National Academy of Sciences, and it's just one of the facts that were presented by physicist Bruce Allen during a recent event here in Washington. Bruce is co-founder of an organization in Santa Barbara, Calif., called SOS California, and is here in the studio today to talk about his research on oil seeps and oil spills.
00:51 First, let's begin by talking about SOS [Stop Oil Seeps] California. What is the group, and why did you help to create it?
00:57 Bruce Allen: By virtue of having lived in Santa Barbara for about 25 years, I came to understand the presence of offshore oil seeps and offshore oil and natural gas off the Santa Barbara coast. And through a friendship with Lad Handelman, who was the founder of Oceaneering International and several other engineering companies, I became very interested in this issue. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that the public really has a misperception about the truth behind offshore oil and gas along the California coast and the very large presence of oil and gas seepage pollution that we have in California coastal waters.
01:37 What's your background and would you consider oil to be your primary area of study?
01:45 Bruce Allen: No, I'm not from the oil industry. My background is in physics, and I worked for more than 25 years in space sciences both at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. government in spacecraft technology and also in solar energy. My background is basically in the technology side, and I founded a small solar energy company many years ago. I've recently written a book on solar energy. Energy has always been an interest to me, but my interest in the oil and gas area has been because of my living in Santa Barbara.
02:20 During your presentation at the Heritage Foundation a few days ago, you mentioned that drilling for oil and natural gas in California's waters could actually make the environment better. Can you explain that, please?
02:32 Bruce Allen: It turns out actually that offshore oil and gas production along the California coast has made our coastal environment much better over the last 40 years. And that to me this was really fascinating knowledge. It turns out that offshore oil and gas production originally started off the coast of Santa Barbara in the early 1900s and continues to this day. Santa Barbara has the world's second largest natural oil and gas seeps, and they are a very large presence in our waters--each year, releasing about 80,000 barrels of oil pollution into our coastal waters--and the currents take it down the coast, and up the coast. So, it's a very large presence on the Santa Barbara coast and along central California.
03:19 What is the connection then between the oil seeps and oil and gas production in Santa Barbara?
03:28 Bruce Allen: It turns out that the seeps are very near the coastline and so it's a very large presence for local residents. As a child, I remember back in the 1960s, walking on the beach and consistently getting oil and tar on my feet. So, it's been a long term natural presence along our coast. And then in the last few years, as I looked into this issue more, I discovered there was actually peer-reviewed research that showed that the existing offshore oil and natural gas production that's been occurring along the California coast has been drying up these seeps by virtue of the fact it dries up the reservoir pressure that drives the seeps into the ocean floor. These large oil and gas reserves that exist below the sea floor, by virtue of them being drilled and drained out, reduces the seep pressure, reduces the amount of seeps into our ocean, and essentially reduces the pollution that's occurring along our beaches. When I read that research, I remembered the times as a child I was walking on the beaches and realized this is true, from a personal experience. I began to talk to other people about this and to Lad Handelman, a co-founder of the SOS organization, and we realized that this issue has really been fundamentally misrepresented to Californians and nationally because most people aren't aware that offshore oil and gas production along the California coast has actually been a huge benefit to our coastal environment, by virtue of reducing this large source of natural pollution. Not only is the oil and tar seepage reduced, but also the air emissions that come from that seepage as well. The reactive organic gases that are a source of air pollution in Santa Barbara county.
05:08 So, you're saying that offshore oil production has helped to alleviate the smog problem?
05:13 Bruce Allen: In Santa Barbara county, the second largest source of air pollution are the natural seeps--and that's been documented in studies--and those air emissions from the seeps are actually being reduced by ongoing production. Although, not as much as it could be because if production were allowed to expand in those seepage areas along the California coast, that now have a state moratorium on further drilling, we could actually increase the amount of production and accelerate the reductions in the seepage and air emissions. So, we actually could have cleaner air, by virtue of drilling out those reserves and reducing the seepage air emissions.
05:50 It sounds like what you're saying then, Bruce, is that because of offshore drilling you've got better air quality, you've got better water quality, and the beaches are cleaner. What's been the effect on wildlife?
06:02 Bruce Allen: Yeah, that's a good question. It turns out that the 1969 oil spill, for example, was estimated to kill about 3,600 birds. Since that time, we estimate more than 20,000 birds have actually died from natural oil seeps by oiling. And one of the reasons we know this is because organizations like the Wildlife Care Network in Santa Barbara, who handles oil birds, exclusively now, pretty much handles oil birds that come from the natural seeps, and they get them in almost every week. So, many of the birds die, some survive, but we do know the birds are oiled by this naturally occurring oil that's along the coast. If you were able to reduce this seepage, we would be able to reduce the adverse effects on the wildlife population as well. In a film we recently released--a documentary--we show that sea otters are also impacted by offshore oil and tar slicks. In the winter, the Davidson Current actually takes some of this seep oil up along the coast, all the way as far as the Santa Cruz, Monterey coastline and affects wildlife up there as well. And often people actually call California Fish and Game and complain that there might be a spill along the Monterey coast and invariably that turns out to be natural oil seepage that's drifted up from the Santa Barbara coastline. So, it really affects more of the coastline than just the Santa Barbara area.
07:29 Changing topics here, for just a moment, California right now is being watched very closely because it's experiencing very severe budgetary problems, and many people have speculated that oil production could actually help with the state budget. Do you think if you had an expansion of oil production that indeed California would be in much better shape financially than it is today?
7:52 Bruce Allen: It would be a huge benefit economically as well. Besides creating jobs, it would also create tremendous revenues both for the private sector and the state. State revenues are estimated by a recent study to be as much as $2 billion in direct royalty revenues to the state of California and many more revenues in terms of property tax and income taxes. So, it would be a very large economic benefit. It would also significantly reduce imported oil that right now has our money flowing overseas and that money would stay in our economy. So, it has a number of economic benefits that would help the state tremendously.
08:33 Based on everything you've said here today, Bruce, on the benefits of oil and gas drilling off the coast of California, why do you think so many people are reluctant to support offshore drilling?
08:44 Bruce Allen: For a couple of reasons. One reason, is because the perception has existed since the 1969 spill that offshore production has been or would be bad for the coastline of California. That's really not true, that's an educational process that we're going through now. Fortunately, at least in the Santa Barbara area, many people are aware of this new information now, that they weren't aware of previously, and understand and agree with our view and that's also being known statewide. There's also just vested interest in people who have traditionally raised money being against offshore oil and gas. And for them I think it's difficult to either acknowledge or admit the significant environmental benefits that we've seen because many organizations really don't like to admit they may have been wrong. In reality, it's not so much that they were wrong; it's simply new information that has presented itself over the last 40 years along with technology improvements that have really reduced the amount of spillage. So, it's really just incorporating new information into your thinking, and a lot of organizations haven't been willing to do that yet. I think it's a combination of factors and also this really hasn't been shown to the public nationally as well as in the state of California. Just a lack of knowledge and awareness, and that's one of the reasons why I co-founded the organization was to really bring this better understanding to the public.
10:08 Now that you're out talking about it publicly and you've done this podcast, and you've been making presentations in Washington, do you think that this issue is going to have an impact on the upcoming elections in November?
10:19 Bruce Allen: I do. I think it will be one of the energy issues that will be taken up by candidates and the electorate. It's a very important issue. Energy security is an important issue. Economic issues are very important. The tremendous amount of economic benefits we can get in terms of revenue, and reducing imports of foreign oil. So, I see a number of ways that it's directly going to be affecting elections both in California and nationally. Energy security and the economy are very important issues to voters. And I definitely think that this will be an issue.
10:55 Very interesting discussion, Bruce Allen. Thank you so much for joining us today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.