Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fuel Review

Angela Howe, Ryan Johnson and I recently saw the documentary Fuel. This is Angela's review.

The documentary “Fuel” was directed and narrated by Josh Tickell, the bio-fuel champion who drove his flower-clad biodiesel van around the nation for the past ten years speaking to people about the virtues of organic-based fuel. Naturally, much of this movie is also geared at the promotion of bio-diesel, as evidenced by Josh’s favorite sign: “Change the World” [flip over] “Change Your Fuel.” The movie asserts that America’s addiction to fuel has caused environmental calamities, including water quality degradation and global warming which increases storm occurrences like Hurricane Katrina. The movie also linked the addiction to fuel for what occurred on 9/11, the Iraq war, and what was mentioned several times as the “Military Petroleum Complex.” The film was politically charged and suffice it to say, not unbiased, with interviews of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and a glorification of Jimmy Carter.

Nonetheless, the movie opens your eyes to a new world view – exposing America’s love affair with oil industry through tax breaks and political back-scratching, while juxtaposing European Countries who subsidize alternative energy. It also discusses the world’s food and oil production cycles and addresses the counter-arguments to bio-fuels. The film does a good job of encouraging independent education to its audience, included in the 10 things you can do.

A beautiful underlying lesson of the film is its encouragement of grassroots activism: change your life, then change the laws – and then our addiction to oil will no longer be “a shame, a flat a$$ shame,” (as Elmer Fudd [yes, that was his name] from Texas eloquently summarized in the film).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Selective Seep Truth

There's an organization in Santa Barbara, California called SOS California, which stands for Stop Oil Seeps. This group, which has received oil industry funding, started out years ago as Bring Oil Back, in response to Get Oil Out.

SOS's main arguments are that:
  • Offshore Oil Drilling is now very safe.
  • More drilling will be an economic boon to Santa Barbara County and the state.
  • More drilling will reduce the natural oil seeps that occur near Coal Oil Point and elsewhere in the Santa Barbara area, thereby reducing both marine and air pollution.

To back up this last point, they reference a study published in 1999 that was co-authored by UCSB professor Bruce Luyendyk. Luyendyk's study was for a small area (1 square kilometer) around Platform Holly. It did show a decrease in oil seeps in this area over a 22-year period. Only one problem - Dr. Luyendyk is more than a little upset with SOS's liberal interpretation of his work and has now gone on record twice at hearings conducted by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors (8/26/08) (about 5:19 into the hearing) and the Santa Barbara City Council (9/9/08) (starting about 5:24) to state that his findings are being too broadly interpreted by SOS and that the geologic conditions at Coal Oil Point are not necessarily representative of other areas in the Santa Barbara Channel. Here's his written statement to the County Board of Supervisors:

August 18, 2008

TO: Board of Supervisors, Santa Barbara County
RE: Statement on oil seeps and drilling for August 26 meeting, “State and National Energy Crisis – Discussion”

The local group Stop Oil Seeps (SOS) has gained a lot of traction lately as alarmed southern Californians react to sharply increasing gasoline prices. Part of the SOS agenda is to promote offshore drilling and oil production as a means of reducing natural oil and gas seepage and their effects in the Santa Barbara Channel. Their premise is based on interpretation of two 1999 UCSB studies[1],[2] on oil seeps offshore Coal Oil Point in Goleta, the location of Venoco’s platform Holly. As a member of that UCSB research team I want to point to several qualifications in this SOS argument.

The relationship between ongoing production and decreasing seepage remains a hypothesis that is not fully tested. The relationship is well established for the Coal Oil Point field under current production methods but not tested by scientific studies elsewhere in the Channel. Many oil reservoirs offshore in fact are not seeping so drilling them would have no effect. Those reservoirs that are seeping, to my knowledge, are discharging far less that the Coal Oil Point field, minimizing any effect of drilling on seepage. Even if drilling were to go forward as a means of decreasing seepage, some seeps are located where oil drilling would not occur either because of non-economic deposits or legal restrictions. Further, any relationship between ongoing production and decreasing seepage could only apply in the early history of an oil field during a phase known as primary production where natural subsurface conditions allow easy extraction of hydrocarbons. As oil fields age more elaborate Enhanced Oil Recovery measures are required, and these could have the opposite result of increasing seepage.

The argument is also made by SOS that most of the oil floating on the surface of the ocean today is of natural origin, not industrial, and that therefore our enemy is really natural seepage. It is true that natural oil seepage may be the major source of oil in the ocean: to what degree is uncertain. However, labeling this natural floating oil to be pollution is not so simple. Ecosystems have adapted to ongoing hydrocarbon seepage as they have done at Coal Oil Point. On the other hand, a sudden accidental spill of even a small magnitude is something that natural systems experience as acute stress and could have far greater impact than continual natural sources.

The Coal Oil Point field emits gases that are classified as noxious air pollutants and precursors to ozone. These are likely of large magnitude offshore but are highly dispersed once they blow onshore to Goleta. That area is rarely beyond state or federal air quality (ozone) standards according to our county monitoring records.

Our 1999 UCSB studies were made on a special case of marine seeps; one of the worlds’ most active. However, these seeps occur over a limited area. To extrapolate the findings of our studies beyond the Coal Oil Point area can not yet be substantiated, and there are many reasons to caution against generalizing our study results to the greater Santa Barbara Channel, much less to the California continental shelf.

Bruce P. Luyendyk
Professor of Marine Geophysics
UC Santa Barbara

[1] Quigley, D. C., J. S. Hornafius, B. P. Luyendyk, R. D. Francis, J. F. Clark, and L. Washburn (1999), Decrease in Natural Marine Hydrocarbon Seepage near Coal Oil Point, California Associated with Offshore Oil Production, Geology, 27 (11), 1047-1050.

[2] Hornafius, J. S., D. C. Quigley, and B. P. Luyendyk (1999), The world’s most spectacular marine hydrocarbons seeps (Coal Oil Point, Santa Barbara Channel, California): quantification of emissions, Journal Geophysical Research - Oceans, 104 (C9), 20703-20711.

To further clarify this issue and point out some of the mis-representations by SOS, Get Oil Out has published a fact sheet which states:

Myth 1: Seeps are the largest source of air pollution in SB County.
The Truth: While seeps are a natural source of air pollution, they make up a relatively small portion of the pollution in SB County. SB Air Pollution Control District 2002 estimates indicate that seeps contribute only 11% of the total ozone precursor pollutant emissions while anthropogenic sources contribute about 59% and vegetation contributes 29%. Similarly, while seeps do emit methane gas into the water column, research suggests that only 1% actually enters the atmosphere (Mau et al. 2007). The rest is transported below the surface and degraded by bacteria.

Myth 2: Seeps negatively affect water quality and marine organisms.
The Truth: Most of the hydrocarbons released by seeps dissolve, disperse or biodegrade without a detectable impact on water quality and marine ecosystems (Mau et al. 2007). In fact, marine life in seep communities is adapted to elevated hydrocarbon levels and seep oil that reaches the surface forms slicks so thin it is harmless to marine animals (Science Daily 2000). The California State Lands Commission states that artificial oil spills are much “more acutely toxic than the slow discharge of hydrocarbons from naturalseafloor seeps” (CSLC 2008).

Myth 3: All the tar on SB beaches comes from natural seeps.
The Truth: While a portion of the tar on SB beaches comes from seeps, it is impossible to conclude that all beach tar is attributable to natural seepage because samples collected from natural seepage can’t be differentiated from Platform Holly oils (Lorenson et al. 2004, as cited in CSLC 2008). This implies that artificial sources of oil, such as leakage from platforms and ships, also contribute to tar.

Myth 4: Increased offshore oil production will reduce natural seepage.
The Truth: Increased offshore drilling has not been proven to decrease seepage and could actually increase seepage. (See Below) The suggestion that increased oil production will reduce natural seepage is based on the misinterpretation of a single study that reported a 50% reduction in seepage between 1973 and 1995 in a 1 km2 area immediately around Platform Holly (Quigley et al. 1999). The study’s authors propose that this decrease is a result of oil production at Platform Holly but caution that their evaluation is limited by a small study area and thus that a “change in seep distribution farther from Holly is unknown.” There is no evidence of an overall decline in seepage in the greater Coal Oil Point seep field. The decline attributed to drilling is too limited relative to the entire seep field to conclude that increased drilling will result in decreased seepage (Ger 2003). Furthermore, no significant changes in seepage between 1996 and 1999 have been found (Luyendyk and Egland 2001, as cited in Del Sontro 2006) even though oil production continued. In fact, drilling practices may increase seepage. A common practice in oil production is the injection of fluids or gas created during production back intoreservoirs in order to maintain pressure to force more oil and gas out. This practice can contribute to natural seepage. For example, one of the stated impacts of the recently proposed Venoco Ellwood Full Field Development Project is increased natural oil and gas seepage as a result of waste water reinjection into formations that contribute to natural seepage (DEIR p. 4.1-27). Accidents due to oil production can also increase seepage. For instance, seepage in the vicinity of Platform A is attributed to a blowout caused by well drilling which resulted in fissures forming on the sea floor and expelling oil (Wilkinson 1973).

• Offshore seeps are natural and are not a significant source of air or water pollution.
• Increased oil drilling has not been shown to reduce seepage and could, in fact, increase seepage.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oil Industry Mis-Information

One of the statements you frequently hear from the oil industry is that offshore oil drilling is safe and that even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused no significant oil spills. These kinds of statements are then picked up and repeated in newspaper articles often enough that they seem to become accepted fact. The only problem is, they're not true!

First, take a look at the above photos from the website.

Then consider that no less a source than the US Minerals Managment Service (MMS) confirmed that numerous oil spills occurred in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of damage caused to offshore oil and gas infrastructure by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Their news release states:

"Based on additional industry assessments, investigations, and reports, the number of pipelines damaged has risen to 457 from 183. The number of larger diameter pipelines (10 inches or greater) that were damaged has risen to 101 from 64. MMS has also revised the number of platforms destroyed from 115 down to 113 (one well was mistaken for a platform and one platform was damaged not destroyed). Six spills of 1,000 barrels or greater were reported; the largest of these was 3,625 barrels of condensate reported by the Gulf South Pipeline Company in the Eugene Island Block 51 area. A total of 146 spills of 1 barrel or greater have been reported in the Federal OCS waters; 37 of these were 50 barrels or greater." [Note: 1 barrel = 42 gallons]

MMS cautioned that the full extent of damage and spills was still being determined.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oil Spills - Decades of Environmental Impacts

It seems that scientists hired by Exxon say there was no lasting damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What a surprise! However other scientists, local fishermen and local residents tell a different story.

If you ask Exxon, local animals are all on the road to recovery. The company insists the spill caused no long-term damage to the region. "The exposure to the remaining oil is very small and is decreasing," said Paul Boehm, a chemical oceanographer and petroleum chemist consulting for the oil company in Alaska. Boehm's job includes gauging how much oil remains in the Sound. He says nearly all that's left is weathered patches of nontoxic oil residue and that the oil is in places or depths where critters like otters don't dig and ducks and their food sources aren't exposed.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council disagrees. The council is charged with using the nearly $1 billion Exxon agreed to pay for restoration efforts in a 1991 settlement, and it pays for the continuing killer whale studies in the Sound. Oil buried in some parts of the Sound is still as toxic today as in 1989, said spokeswoman Rebecca Talbott, and it may be slowing the ability of species such as the harlequin duck to rebound from the spill.

And an already fragile population of killer whales that hunts Prince William Sound never recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and is doomed to die off, according to biologists. Marine mammal biologist Craig Matkin of Homer has tracked the animals since the mid-1980s and said he never thought he'd see an entire population of whales -- even a small one -- disappear.
"To blame it all on the spill would not be fair, but that's the final death blow," Matkin said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Salazar rejects Bush drilling plan

Yesterday, Ken Salazar, Obama's Secretary of the Interior, rejected Bush's "midnight action" to open our coasts and oceans to offshore drilling.

"The Bush administration was so intent on opening new areas for oil and gas offshore that it torpedoed offshore renewable energy efforts," said Salazar.

Saying he needed to restore order to a broken process, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced his strategy for developing an offshore energy plan that includes both conventional and renewable resources.

His strategy calls for extending the public comment period on a proposed 5-year plan for oil and gas development on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf by 180 days, assembling a detailed report from Interior agencies on conventional and renewable offshore energy resources, holding four regional conferences to review these findings, and expediting renewable energy rulemaking for the Outer Continental Shelf.

Read the Dept. of Interior release

More news on Salazar's announcement

Activists push for offshore drilling ban

It will be important to make our voice heard to ban all new offshore drilling. Stay tuned for announcements about the upcoming public hearings.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

31 Groups call Obama to renew offshore drilling prohibitions

Surfrider Foundation has joined Oceana and 30 other groups to urge President Obama and the 111th Congresss to renew drilling prohibitions offshore.

Read the statement here.