Monday, May 23, 2016

A California Dream Spoiled By Big Oil

My wife tells the story often to strangers of her evolutional history of becoming a resident of California.  The story usually starts off with a brief introduction to her bedroom as a teenage girl with a poster of the California coastline -- the beach on it.  Dreaming, she says of the following: basking in the sun, meeting her husband, and living near the beach.  In a sense, she has obtained each.  I am a native Southern California guy.  We live inland around 40 minutes drive (without traffic) from the beach.  Periodically, we find ourselves at the beach -- like we did yesterday.  What is the issue you might ask?  Let me explain below.

The California Dream?

As I mentioned, I am a native of Southern California.  I grew up in Corona (California) which is inland from the beach aroun 60 miles.  Corona during that time was a small city.  My parents both grew up in Santa Monica by the beach.  As a result of the tremendous growth, they decided to move inland away from all of the commotion.  Of course, their family still stayed in the area, so the opportunity to visit was always present.

Corona was not the beach.  Although, Corona (during that time) had special attributes of its own.  Originally, Corona was a citrus station filled with orange trees, the urban sprawl was large.  As a result, as children we would ride our bicycles all around town distances 5 or more miles in a single direction.  In hindsight, this training turned out to be useful in motivating our  nonprofit organization -- bikecar101.

Over the years, my siblings and I spent a considerable time at our grandparents house near the beach.  We would go to the beach very often and run around burning off all the excess energy which had been built up throughout the day with other activities.  Surfing was included in the beach trips.  For us, living in California meant both the beach dream and the small town feel which is much different than living in downtown Los Angeles.  Although, today, the city of Corona has grown considerably and has but only a few orange trees left.  The rest is growth (housing and commercial buildings).

Why am I carrying on like this?  What is the point to all of this rambling?

The reason why I discuss my background is to set the stage for the following observation which I am told quite frequently.  My wife, who is from Omaha (Nebraska) will often tell me that I do not appreciate California.  At first this was strange.  I had been to quite a few other countries while serving in the US Air Force -- but that is another story for another time.  Over time, I came to ignore her when she said this to other people.  California is a wonderful place, but just like every other place in this great nation, there are wonderful attributes and not so wonderful attributes associated with the State.

More specifically, within Southern California are the same distinctions.  I am constantly amazed by this observation.  People are interesting and amusing (myself included).  Alright, now that we have that out of the way, lets get down to business.  The "California Dream" was ruined yesterday for me -- sounds strange right?  Is that even possible?  I believe that the possibility exists, let me explain.

Last weekend, a mutual friend of ours wanted to surf at Venice Beach on Saturday.  I have not surfed for a couple of years and had no board, therefore, I was not super motivated to go with him.  I did want to visit and he wanted to surf with a passion.  Turns out he just bought a board rack for his bicycle and wanted to ride down with us and hang out and surf a little.  No problem.

We got to the beach and had a great lunch.  After, he rented a wet suit and we settled on the beach near the water to watch him hit the waves.  To my amazement, the following observations were made by us on the beach that day:

Observation #1: Stain on wet suit

The first observation was a strange smeared stain that was black that ran across the wet suit that Bryce rented.  He really wanted to surf.  So much so that he was willing to wear a wet suit that had a stain which appeared like the suit had been used as "toilet paper" in the rest room.  I am not joking.  Very strange I thought to say the least.

He set out and paddled around for a while until he was tired and returned only to want to immediately get out of that wet suit.  The suit smelled dirty and as a result made him disgusted.  I thought -- after surfing for years -- that is what you get when you rent a wet suit.  At least the water washed the suit off as he was using the suit.   So I thought ...

Observation #2: Mysterious black sticky compound on my feet

When we were leaving the beach, I decided to wash my feet before putting on my shoes to bicycle back home.  I noticed that there was a black sticky compound on my feet that had sand stuck adhered to the patch.  I thought at first that upon walking across the grass near the beach, I might have walked through a patch of "dog poop."   Nope.

When we arrived at the showers, I tried to wash the stuff off of my foot.  To no avail, whatever was adhered to my foot was there to stay.  Kayla even tried to wash is off and smelled the substance to identify the smell as "bong resin."  Bong resin is the tar that accumulates at the bottom of the pipe used to smoke marijuana and stinks while having the property of being "super sticky."  I thought that the possibility of that substance stuck to my foot being "bong resin" was strong since the smell of marijuana is all encompassing Venice Beach.  I decided to stick my sock on and ride home to deal with the sticky substance stuck to my foot after in the shower.

Observation #3: Sticky substance was not "bong resin"

To my astonishment in the shower, the substance was definitely not "bong resin."  How do I know?  There was no smell or trace odor of marijuana upon closer inspection.  What was this substance?  Turns out later while talking with some friends over dinner that night who surf down at Venice, the substance was "tar."  Basically, the tar had been more common place since the oil spill by the company -- Plains All American Pipeline -- up the coast last year in Santa Barbara.  What?  That was "oil tar."

Oil Spills Aftermaths Linger For Years

I remember reading the in depth coverage of the oil spill in Santa Barbara caused by the Plain Oil Company which resulted in around 140,000 gallons of oil dumped onto the coast.  My first thought was to compare that amount to the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by the BP Oil company years ago.  Here is a direct calculation of the ratio of the spills:

Yes, the number is super small in comparison.  For this reason, I did not think to much of this spill.  In the initial blog post of this website (introductory blog post), I calculated the number of Olympic sized swimming pools that would be filled with the equivalent volume of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989.  This turned out to be 30 Olympic sized swimming pools -- Wow.  What about the oil spill in Santa Barbara of 140,000 gallons of oil.  Shown below is the calculation:

Compared to other oil spills, the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara did not seem that large.  I would have thought that over the course of a few months, the oil would have dispersed enough to be "non-existent" -- or removed from the local beaches.

Of course, any spill can be catastrophic -- regardless of volume.  According to the news accounts, the damage to the environment was not known at the time and would take a while to tally.  There was a large difference between the oil spills that I should mention before proceeding.  The Refugio Oil spill that occurred in Santa Barbara (California) was very close to the coastal beach.  Whereas the gigantic oil spill off the Gulf Coast of Mexico was a distance offshore.  This point of distinction needs to be made before proceeding further.  Regardless, according to the news accounts, the damage was serious.

According to a news story released nearly 10 days after the spill that appeared on the website "The Guardian" titled "Globs Of Tar Was Ashore, Closing Los Angeles Beaches," the beach was not inhabitable by visitors.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

Popular beaches along nearly seven miles (11 kilometres) of Los Angeles-area coastline were off-limits to surfing and swimming on Thursday as scientists looked for the source of globs of tar that washed ashore.

The sand and surf on south Santa Monica bay appeared virtually free of oil after an overnight clean-up, but officials weren’t sure if more tar would show up. They planned to assess during low tide at midday.

Public health officials told people to avoid contact with the water, wet sand or any material that washed up in the area. They warned that contact with petroleum products can cause skin irritation and result in long-term health problems.

In the initial accounts, officials did not really have an idea of the magnitude of the spill or the potential aftermath of the spill.  The only concrete piece of knowledge that could be disseminated was that "tar balls" would show up?  Alright.  Furthermore, they closed the beach while cleanup crews walked the beach as shown in a photograph taken from the article and shown below:

Source: The Guardian

Can you imagine the concerted effort that was involved in order to get the oil removed from the beach?

A month later, the news was no less reassuring that the cleanup effort was successful thus far.  In another article appearing on the website "The Guardian" titled "Cleanup Of California Oil Spill Goes Low Tech To Limit Environmental Impact," the estimate of the total cleanup was to be around $64 million dollars -- wow!  That did not include the potential damage of the spill on the environment.  Here is an excerpt from that account regarding the cleanup effort at the time:

In the latest spill, workers shoveled tar balls and contaminated sand into plastic bags that were then carried away for disposal. They also had to be careful not to disturb populations of western snowy plovers that were in the middle of their breeding season.
 “We’re more concerned about the impact of the cleanup doing more injury than the oil did originally,” said Kim McCleneghan of the state department of fish and wildlife, who responded to both spills. 
About 91% of 97 miles of coastline – mostly sandy beaches – surveyed by teams of experts from various federal and state agencies has been given the all-clear.

Since the accounts surrounding the oil spill (within a few months), the subject has gone dark.  Meaning, that the news agencies are not spending coverage on the aftermath -- a year later.  That was (so I thought over the weekend after peeling oil off of my feet) until yesterday.

Plains All American Oil Gets Fined

An article that appeared in the "New York Times" titled "Company Says It's Been Indicted For The California Oil Spill" with a picture that reminded us of the extent of the spill shown below:

Source: New York Times

We are reminded of the extent of the damage of the oil spill by the excerpt shown below which was taken from the article:

On May 19 last year, the corroded, two-foot-diameter underground pipeline broke open near Refugio State Beach, west of Santa Barbara. Much of the oil flowed into the ocean, in an area that is home to an array of shorebirds and marine mammals, and is near the migratory path of gray whales. It formed a dark plume in the water that stretched for miles and coated several beaches, harming tourism, and officials have said that tar balls from the spill washed ashore as far as 100 miles to the southeast. 
The company initially estimated the spill at 21,000 gallons, but later revised that to more than 140,000 gallons. In documents supplied to lawmakers, Plains acknowledged that it had not alerted federal regulators until more than three hours after discovering the spill.

Here is an excerpt from the article discussing the possible distribution of charges being brought by the Attorney General of California -- Kamala Harris:

The California attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, and the Santa Barbara County district attorney, Joyce E. Dudley, said a Santa Barbara County grand jury had handed up an indictment charging the company, Plains All American, with four felonies and 42 misdemeanors, and charging an employee, James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist at Plains, with three misdemeanors.

The company also faces multiple civil cases in the oil spill, but criminal charges in such a case are more unusual. Ms. Harris, who is running for the United States Senate, said the indictment reflected what the company knew or should have known of the dangers posed by its actions.

“The negative impacts of this conduct were immediate and tragic,” Ms. Harris said. “Anyone who violates the law and endangers our environment is going to be held responsible.”

I am happy to see that justice is being served toward the giant oil company "Plains All American Oil" by the Attorney General.  Accidents like this should not ever go away with time.  Especially, since the environmental destruction takes time to assess and set in.  After reading these articles and revisiting the oil spill, I wondering why I happened to get oil on my feet last weekend?

Oil Seeps Naturally From The Ocean Floor?

After I had the experience (which was foreign to me) of obtaining "tar" on my foot at the beach, I started to ask around.  I found a correlation with the information obtained about the presence of "tar" on the beach and the amount of years a person had been a resident of California.  Which is to say, people who had lived here less than 10 years tended to blame the "tar" on "natural oil seeps."  This fascinated me since I had lived here and frequented the beaches up and down the coast and not once (until this time) experienced "tar" on the beach.

Yes, I knew that there had been oil rigs up and down the coastal land (slightly inland) that had come and gone.  Still, I was surprised to hear from people how they just blew off the presence of "tar" as a derivative of the following statement: "Oh, the tar?  That is caused by natural oil seeps..."  What?  I guess that the following line of reasoning might be due to the amount of oil rigs that are in the area coupled with natural places like the La Brea Tar pits.  I highlighted the astounding amount of oil rigs in LA county in a previous blog post -- 5000 -- WOW.  With this number in mind, I guess that awareness should not make my discovery a surprise.

What about "natural oil seeps?"

I started to look into these "natural oil seeps."  What I found was an institute dedicated to studying the marine ecological environment called the "Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute."  The vision of the institute is stated below:

The ocean is a defining feature of our planet and crucial to life on Earth, yet it remains one of the planet’s last unexplored frontiers. For this reason, WHOI scientists and engineers are committed to understanding all facets of the ocean as well as its complex connections with Earth’s atmosphere, land, ice, seafloor, and life—including humanity. This is essential not only to advance knowledge about our planet, but also to ensure society’s long-term welfare and to help guide human stewardship of the environment. WHOI researchers are also dedicated to training future generations of ocean science leaders, to providing unbiased information that informs public policy and decision-making, and to expanding public awareness about the importance of the global ocean and its resources.

The WHOI in abbreviated form was instrumental in the analysis of the BP Gulf Deepwater Horizon Oil spill 6 years ago.  That spill was the largest oil spill in history.  The institute played a major role in analyzing the plankton and other marine organisms trapped in water columns near the blowout of oil along with the overall oil dispersion over time within the ocean.  The main take home message of me bringing this up is to say that the WHOI has experience with "natural oil seeps" -- studying the origination and contribution to the environment.  Check out their "Research Projects" page.

After I delved into their website a little more, I found statements like the one below discussing the origination of oil in the ocean which surprised me:

Oil can come from a variety of sources, each of which influences the amount, type, and duration of a spill. The 2003 report published by the National Research Council titled Oil in the Sea III organized these sources into four categories: natural seeps, petroleum extraction, petroleum transportation, and petroleum consumption. Of these, seeps are by far the single largest source, accounting for nearly half of all the petroleum compounds released to the ocean worldwide each year. Seeps are also the only natural source of oil input to the environment. The other sources, in order of magnitude, are extraction, transportation, and consumption and stem from human activity.

An important difference between seeps and human-generated inputs is that seeps are widely distributed around the world and occur at a fairly slow and relatively constant rate.  So constant, in fact, that some animals and microbes have evolved to thrive in the presence of the chemicals that flow from the seafloor near seeps. Studies of these unique organisms and ecosystems are an important part of the picture that scientists are assembling of how oil affects marine biology.

Oil that enters the ocean as a result of extraction, transportation, or consumption often receives more attention than seeps for the simple fact that it is more visible. These events are of interest to scientists because they generally constitute large inputs from a single source and can occur anywhere in the world, often in places that have little, if any, natural ability to cope with the contamination. The impacts of oiling on individual plants and animals or on entire ecosystems range from the visible and immediate (e.g., smothering) to long-term and largely hidden (e.g., genetic disruption) and can have implications on the physical structure or health of a region for decades. Human systems, such as water supplies, fisheries, and tourism industries, are also vulnerable to oil spills, and this adds even more complexity when trying to understand the full effects of a particular event.

I was surprised to find out that nearly half of the oil in the ocean comes from natural inputs.  I am still skeptical of the situation.  Upon further research into their website, the sources of oil become more apparent and justified from a scientific standpoint.  I want to show an excerpt that will bring to light a more logical connection to my experience at Venice Beach a couple of weekends ago.  Here is the excerpt from the "natural oil seeps" webpage on the WHOI website:

In locations where seeps are found, oil flows slowly up through networks of cracks, forming springs of hydrocarbons similar to the La Brae tar pits on land. Lighter compounds rise buoyantly to the water’s surface and evaporate or become entrained in ocean currents; others fall to the seafloor and collect over hundreds or thousands of years. 

Seeps are often found in places where oil and gas extraction activities are also located. As a result, many surface slicks and tar balls caused by seeps are often attributed to releases from oil and gas platforms. The question arises, then: If oil occurs naturally in the ocean and if seeps are the biggest single source, why is there concern about the occasional accidental spill? The answer lies in the nature and rates of oil inputs by these different sources.

Seeps are generally very old and flow at a very low rate. The material that flows out is still very often toxic, but organisms some that live nearby are adapted to conditions in and around seeps. A few very unique species of animals are even able to use the hydrocarbons and other chemicals released at seeps as a source of metabolic energy. In addition, rather than being made up entirely crude oil, the material flowing from seeps is often heavily biodegraded by microbial action deep beneath the seafloor.

In contrast, the production, transportation, and consumption of oil by humans generally results in relatively short, high-volume inputs of oil and refined hydrocarbon products in places that have never experienced significant exposure to these chemicals and so do not have many natural defenses to them. As a result, seeps are often looked upon as a living laboratory for scientists to study how natural processes affect the fate of released oil or how individual species or communities of plants and animals are capable of dealing with the burden of otherwise toxic chemicals. From this may one day come a better understanding of how to help places affected by oil spills recover and regain much of their pre-spill health and function.

These last four paragraphs justify my experience at the beach a couple of weeks ago.  Within the excerpt above, the contribution from the extraction and transport processes play a large role in the "tar" encountered on the beaches.  Additionally, this coincides with the statements I have heard since my experience from older "locals" of the Los Angeles area.  Some will not even go into the water anymore to surf because of the oil "tar" -- which has increased over the years.  This brings me to my last question:

Why has no one mentioned the increase in "tar" on the beaches or reported on the increase?

Have we all lost our minds? And as a result are just accepting of this unusual occurrence?

Something is unusual here.  I am very surprised that not one of these communities along the coast (Malibu, Santa Barbara, Manhattan, Santa Monica, etc.) have not been outraged at the increased occurrence of "tar" on the beaches.  Simply amazing.


I remain skeptical of the contribution of the "natural oil seeps" due to the science of the flow rate and leakage along with the evolution of natural organisms to capitalize on their location and use the various hydrocarbons for nutrients.  This seems to me to be natural. Yet, these organisms would not leave behind giant "tar balls" to be washed up onto shore.  And if so, why would generations not be complaining about the presence of such organic matter on the shore.

The beaches in California are nearly worshipped along with the weather.  Over the generations, I am surprised to not hear anything of these natural occurrences.  Therefore, I tend to favor the other opinion that I hold -- the big oil companies are to blame for the increase in "tar" on our beaches.  With the presence of the "fall out" from last year's 140,000 gallons, I am more inclined to attribute the increase in "tar" to events such as those (as terrible as they may be).

Last Thursday, KPCC (a radio station) had a story titled "Pipeline Operator Could Face Additional Penalties For Santa Barbara Oil Spill" which talked about the disaster briefly and the "final investigative report" released by authorities regarding the Plains All American Pipeline's failure in last year's oil spill.  Here was the introduction to the story below which justifies my skepticism regarding a greater contribution from "Big Oil" rather than "natural oil seeps":

An oil pipeline company responsible for a massive spill on the California coast a year ago didn't do enough to prevent corrosion and its operators didn't detect and react to the spill quickly enough, federal regulators said Thursday.

Plains All American Pipeline also didn't have adequate systems in place to signal there was a major leak in the pipeline running near the Santa Barbara County coast, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in its final investigation report.

"The operators failed on multiple levels to prevent, detect and respond to this incident," agency Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said. "A number of preventable errors led to this incident and the company's failures in judgment, including inadequate assessment of this line, and faulty planning made matters worse. What happened is completely unacceptable and we will hold the company accountable."

I think that enough has been said on the matter.  What is next is the litigation followed by action.  What does "action" look like?  Well, each of us need to follow horrible stories like this and take "action" by writing (e-mail or written letter, or call) our local representatives and explain that these events do not justify the drilling that is going on currently.  All oil drilling should be shut down in the region until an agreement between large oil companies and agencies along with the public can be reached.

How much more of the environment do we need to damage before the message is heard?  As of this moment, the public and legislatures appear to be wearing "ear muffs" to buffer out the noise (outcry) of this damaging action by the oil companies.   Until next time, your assignment is to read more about the oil seeps and the part that "Big Oil" is playing into them.  Have a great day.

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