By Bruce Allen, Co-Founder, SOS California Natural oil seeps take a toll on birds. Is that any way to protect our environment? Just offshore Santa Barbara lie the world’s second-largest natural oil and gas seeps, and offshore oil production has been drying up these seeps for more than 50 years. Local residents have seen their beaches slowly becoming cleansed of seep oil. The reduction in natural seepage pollution as a result of offshore oil drilling has been established by long-term UCSB studies. What many residents don’t realize is local natural oil seepage kills wildlife. Far more birds have died from these seeps than from all California offshore oil spills combined over the last 50 years. Just last month, the Long Beach-based International Bird Rescue Research Center reported, “Natural Seep Oil Prompts Bird Rescue in California” with more than 50 birds oiled in January. In March 2011, the IBRRC headline was, “Natural Seep Oiled Birds Continue to Flood IBRRC.” Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network routinely sees dead seep-oiled birds. A local 2005 natural oil seepage event killed more birds than the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel. Is offshore oil opposition really because we need to “protect the coastline?” Santa Barbara offshore oil production has been cleaning up our beaches for decades. If offshore oil production would have stopped after the 1969 spill, Santa Barbara beaches would have far more seep oil and more birds dying from seepage pollution. Offshore oil production has saved thousands of birds from premature seep-oil-coated deaths. Local wildlife will have fewer seep-oil deaths for thousands of years into the future because of offshore production. In the span of Santa Barbara history, any short-term oil spill is lost in time compared to the permanent reductions in natural oil seepage. Claims that we need to stop offshore production to “protect the coastline” actually would result in maintaining more seep-oiled beaches and more unnecessary bird deaths. Who are the real environmentalists? If you doubt California bird populations die in large numbers from natural seep oiling, just Google the news stories. The best thing that ever happened to Santa Barbara and California beaches is local offshore oil production. Our seep oil even reaches Northern California beaches with the winter currents and kills wildlife as far north as Monterey. Most of the known Santa Barbara County offshore oil reserves still off-limits are overlain by active natural seeps. UCSB geology professor emeritus James Boles stated publicly that the largest offshore seeps remain off-limits and that producing them would reduce further seepage pollution. One of the largest sources of air pollution in Santa Barbara County is natural offshore gas seepage. Reducing these seeps would result in permanent improvements in air quality. Protecting the local environment should be about saving wildlife and improving air and water quality. It seems that some people believe it’s more important to oppose offshore oil as a symbolic gesture than to admit offshore oil production has reduced oil seepage pollution and saved the lives of countless birds. Even the effects of the 1969 spill disappeared within months. A 1971 UCSB biological sciences study concluded local fisheries returned to normal within four months of the spill. Compare that to having cleaner beaches, cleaner air quality and fewer premature bird deaths for thousands of years. Our tourism has only benefited from offshore oil production. When I played on Santa Barbara beaches in the 1960s, I always had seep oil on my feet. Now our beaches are cleaner. Tourists like beaches with less seep oil. Scaring people about the potential of another oil spill when the effects disappear quickly isn’t good public policy. Expanded offshore production could generate more than $400 million per year in new Santa Barbara County royalty revenues, give us the best-funded schools in the country, and make the county pension system solvent. Instead, local politicians just want to raise your taxes. Editor's Note: Bruce Allen is co-founder of SOS California (Stop Oil Seeps), a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization devoted to public education on offshore oil and gas, environmental and renewable energy issues. He is the author of Reaching the Solar Tipping Point.
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