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Oil Platform


Oil Pumps


Oil was discovered just before the turn of the century at Summerland. The Chumash had long relied on tar seeps to caulk canoes, and the Spanish later used this to pave floors, but after the discovery of the oil, the coast began to sprout derricks to support offshore drilling. This was the first offshore oil development in the world and would, over time, prove to be a contentious practice in the bioregion. It culminated with a massive spill in 1969, an event credited as the spark that ignited the modern day environmental movement.

As a result of the spill, two landmark pieces of legislation were passed, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Oil is a volatile topic. It can perhaps be considered from a few environmental angles, including energy production, climate change and the most obvious one of pollution through spill, but subsurface seepage is also very common.

The typical annual seepage is estimated at about 15,800 tons of crude oil (Squire, 1992). Based on that, the argument has been made that local drilling slows this seepage and is therefore desirable. Since this hasn't been proven, we might shift our focus to the following cause for concern:


River and urban runoff of oil from vehicles together total more than seepage and tanker operations combined (Lobban & Harrison, 1994)!

By monitoring and attending to the oil leaks in our cars, we do more for the Santa Barbara Channel and its wildlife than by drilling (if that did reduce seepage) or by boycotting oil companies. Ethical action begins with personal behavior and habit.

One difference between seepage and tanker spills must be kept in mind—natural seepage is spread over hundreds of square miles during the course of a year, and living organisms and wildlife have over the millennia adapted to this seepage and resultant oil concentrations. Spills however are concentrated in a small area over a very short period of time, with organisms unable to cope.

So prevalent are oil spills around the world that an Oil Spill Index has been developed (Gundlach and Hayes, 1978) with which to correlate and compare spills and their outcomes. This ranks ecosystems according to their vulnerability. Certain communities (macrophytes for example) seem the least affected by spills and if so, recover the quickest simply because the limpets and periwinkles that feed on them have invariably been killed by the oil (Lobban, 273).


Macrophytes are considered to be an important indicator for ecosystem health (Crowder and Painter 1991). The absence of macrophytes in a system where they should be, may indicate water quality problems. An overabundance of macrophytes can result from high nutrient levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency notes that macrophytes are excellent indicators of watershed health because they respond to nutrients, light, toxic contaminants, metals, herbicides, turbidity, water level change, and salt. Kelp beds are also easily sampled through the use of transects or aerial photography, do not require laboratory analysis and are easily used for calculating simple abundance. Macrophytes therefore reflect much of what is happening in the ocean.

To describe nature's ability to deal with oil, it is worth mention that there are nearly 100 naturally occurring species of bacteria, yeasts and molds that can attack the hydrocarbons that constitute oil (Bell 1978). This process is actually used in spill cleanups when nitrogen and phosphorous is added to the water to aid biodegradation. Oil is acidic, destroying nitrogen and phosphorous, hence the need for 'fertilization.'

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