Tar on your foot
The down and dirty about Ventura County’s oil legacy
By Kit Stolz 04/16/2009
Anyone who has ever lived in the Ventura County area and walked barefoot on the beach has probably at some point felt something sticky on his or her foot and found a black substance commonly kno wn as “tar” on his or her sole.
This “tar” is actually a globule of crude oil, probably emitted from the Coal Oil Point area north of Santa Barbara near UCSB, which according to peer-reviewed geographical surveys, is one of the most active oil seeps on the planet.
Since the Coal Oil Point oil seep in the Santa Barbara Channel emits over 4,000 gallons of crude oil a day, and has been doing so for at least half a million years, one would think these seeps would be uncontroversial.
Not so. Both sides of the environmental debate over oil in our area point fingers at the other over what these seeps mean for California’s central coast.
Paul Jenkin, of Surfrider and the Matilija Coalition, an environmentalist, admitted that, “There are a lot of natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara channel, but still, a certain percentage of the oil that ends up on our beaches could be from leaks from the oil platforms. I wouldn’t put it past the oil companies to use the natural seeps as a cover.”
A 2003 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, funded by a California state agency, used biochemical “fingerprinting” techniques to trace the tar balls found on California beaches. Most came from the Coal Oil Point area, but the survey noted that some of the oil on the beaches could not be distinguished from the oil being pumped out of geological reservoirs at two oil rig platforms, one of which was the notorious Platform A, the source of a massive oil spill off Southern California in l969.
On the other side of the debate over oil drilling, Bob Poole, who represents oil companies for a coalition called the Western States Petroleum Association, refers questions to a Web site called Stop Oil Seeps California, which publicizes the extent of the natural oil seeps, and as a solution calls for lifting the moratorium on oil drilling offshore.
According to a plan being proposed by SOS California, “New California offshore oil and gas revenues can pay for California’s conversion to solar and renewable electricity and electric/plug-in vehicles and reductions in taxes for all Californians.”
For pro-industry partisans, the existence of natural oil seeps can justify big claims. Last September 15, during the “drill baby drill” brouhaha over offshore oil drilling, a Fox News broadcaster named Trace Gallagher declared on national television that “more oil seeps through the ground off the coast of California than is ever spilled out there.”
According to Ira Leifer, who runs an institute at UC Santa Barbara called Bubbleology that publishes scientific studies on the seeps, this is partly true, but only if you ignore the element of time.
“The Coal Oil Point seeps produce the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every three years,” he said. “But there’s a vast difference between drinking a glass of vodka every night and drinking a year’s worth of vodka in one night.”
The infamous 1969 oil disaster at Platform A off the Santa Barbara coast released about 100,000 barrels of oil — roughly 4 million gallons — in just 12 days. The oil came ashore in a thick layer along our central coast, fouling beaches from Rincon Point to Goleta, and killing seals, birds, otters, whales and other forms of sea life by the thousands. The disaster inspired national revulsion and resulted in legislative action that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, and the Coastal Commission in California, which in turn led to much tighter regulation of the oil industry.
THE DISASTER of PLATFORM A: COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
Could such an offshore drilling accident happen again on our coast?
Both environmental advocates and industry experts doubt it, although they differ on what that means.
Ike Ikerd, who leads a small fleet of vessels charged with cleaning up any oil spills, said in an interview in his Carpinteria office that “The people I talk to who work on the rigs tell me that because the reservoirs have been drawn down and aren’t under a lot of pressure today, if something goes wrong, water rushes in and closes the well. The problem is not oil getting out, but water getting in.”
Rishi Tyagi, chief inspector for the Pacific Region of the federal government’s Minerals Management Service, agreed.
“Pressures have been depleted,” he said. “Today, the remaining reserves in the Channel require gas lifts or other secondary measures just to be pumped. The operations are also designed to fail inward, if they do fail, and they are inspected by our office frequently, at the platform level and undersea.”
“There is still risk,” said Linda Krop, lead counsel at the Environmental Defense Center. “I would agree that in terms of potential volume of spilled oil, there is a greater risk from a tanker accident than from an industrial well accident, but there is still risk across the board.”
“There have been technological advances in undersea drilling since l969,” said Kira Redmond, who works for the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper environmental group. “But technology cannot prevent human error, and the industry uses new technology as an excuse to argue for new installations, such as a massive liquid natural gas facility off our coast. The Santa Barbara Channel is incredibly diverse biologically, part of a national marine sanctuary, and a whale migration route. I don’t think most people want to put that at risk.”
OFFSHORE DRILLING : EVEN ENVIRONMENTALISTS DISAGREE ABOUT IT
For decades, Ventura County welcomed oil production on shore, as documented in a l996 study for the Department of the Interior by UCSB graduate student Krista Pearson and three co-authors. But since the 1969 disaster, fierce local and state opposition to offshore oil drilling has prevented any new offshore construction off the California coast.
Even an attempt by the Environmental Defense Center to broker a compromise to allow an oil rig to slant-drill deeper into the Tranquillon Ridge area near Goleta ran afoul of opposition, not from local environmentalists, but from elected officials at the state level.
“This was a project for Santa Barbara County where a company called PXP was going to slant-drill from existing facilities deeper into the Tranquillon Ridge Field,” said Linda Krop, lead attorney with the Environmental Defense Center.
“Originally, we objected because that would extend the life of the platform. But PXP came back to us and asked: What if we agreed to shut down this platform early, and three other platforms as well, in return for the right to drill deeper?”
After years of highly detailed negotiations, Santa Barbara authorities approved the deal between the environmental group and the oil company. The agreement was vetted and endorsed by Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps, but killed in a 2-to-1 vote last month by the State Lands Commission, with Democrat John Garamendi casting the deciding vote.
“A concern that I have is the possibility that those who want to see drilling off the coast of California would use this lease as a signal that California is interested and willing to accept more drilling in federal waters and more leases in federal waters,” he said at the time..
“We’re disappointed,” said Krop. “This was an incredible opportunity to shut down existing platforms, which has never been done in this region. We had support from business, labor and environmental groups, but sometimes people from outside the area just don’t understand that these platforms aren’t going to go away on their own.”
“Whenever we talk about offshore oil drilling it becomes a contentious issue,” said John Romero of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the Department of the Interior. “The l969 oil spill is still with us emotionally.”
THE OIL ONSHORE
The emotional scars from the l969 spill remain in the collective memory of Ventura County residents, but the county has had a much longer history with onshore oil production, which has also left physical scars on the land, many of which have not healed.
The two oil basins under the Ventura Avenue area became the nation’s 12th most productive oil field in its heyday in the l950s, according to an MMS study, producing up to 20 million barrels of oil annually. The field still holds over a billion barrels of oil, according to a 1991 state estimate. Today, hundreds of wells in the Ventura Avenue area operated by Aera Energy (a consortium formed by Shell and Exxon) pump about 4.4 million barrels of oil a year.
“It’s an active field,” said Susan Hersberger, a spokeswoman for Aera. “We are the largest onshore oil producer in Ventura County, and we are pursuing new technologies that will continue to allow us to continue to extract oil from the area.”
According to Pat Richards, who handles permits for the oil industry filed with the County of Ventura, Aera and other producers have found in recent years that it makes more sense to redrill on existing properties than it does to retrofit old wells, or to search for new oil deposits.
“You know how, when you get down to the bottom of a cereal bowl, you want to tip the bowl to get the last part of your milk out?” he asked. “That’s what these guys are doing, except they’re doing it with waterflooding technology, where they take underground water and inject it on one side of the field to raise the level and force the hydrocarbons up to a level where they can get at it on the other side.”
Jim Monahan, a Ventura city councilman, and a man with long experience in the oil industry as a pipeline contractor, said in a phone interview that Aera has redrilled six wells in the last couple of years in the Ventura Avenue area. Richards believes the number is higher, but he stresses that even though the wells are being drilled under existing permits, they are regulated.
“You need a permit for everything these days,” he said. “But I find that with the newer oil companies, they’re much more environmentally conscious, much more willing to provide reports and evidence of their activities than the older companies were. I think they recognize that there have to be checks and balances on what they do.”
Not all oil producers have been so responsive. Ben Pitterle, who monitors local watersheds for the ChannelKeeper environmental group, was driving past Soilmar Beach a couple of years ago and saw a huge discharge into the ocean from a nearby canyon. He documented the damage from a nearby oil site with pictures, which he sent to the State Water Quality Control Board. In October 2007 they found Vintage Petroleum of Oxnard in violation of its permit, and asked the company to submit a new plan for pollution prevention. Vintage did ultimately file a new plan, said Alix Alimohammadi of the state agency, and agreed to institute “best management practices” changes to reduce pollutants from the site, thus avoiding a $10,000 a day fine.
Although Pitterle remains skeptical that the oil industry has changed, in the early days of the oil industry in Ventura County, no provision was made for decommissioning inactive oil wells. In recent years, the County deferred to a state office, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which didn’t always assume responsibility for cleanup efforts. Steve Fields at the local office says that in the last couple of years, the state has worked with local producers to remove nearly 150 old tanks in the Ventura Avenue area.
PETROCHEM : Will It Ever Be Cleaned Up?
A sore spot with many observers of the Ventura County oil industry is the shuttered Petrochem site not far from the Ventura River. Petrochem was once a small oil refinery, but it’s been out of business for decades, and an eyesore to boot.
Jenkin of Surfrider, who has been monitoring water quality in the Ventura River for years, describes it as “a horror.”
The County collects a fee from oil firms to fund cleanup efforts, but the figure has been fixed at a total of $10,000 for decades, according to Nancy Settle, who runs the Planning Department. The Tax Collector reports that the largest parcel on the Petrochem site is valued at $711,000, and its property taxes are being paid, but no one at the County expects changes any time soon.
“It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember,” said Richards. “And anyone who bought it would have to bring it up to code.”
The city hopes in time to turn the Ventura River into a parkway. Perhaps someday the Petrochem site will be green and verdant instead of old and rusting. But until that day, like the oil industry in Ventura County, it’s likely to remain a powerful reminder of the county’s industrial past and the vast pool of oil that remains more than 12,000 feet below Ventura Avenue.