While many an area resident rolled out of bed late Saturday morning for last weekend’s Solstice Festival, a crowd of early rising sightseers—equipped with windbreakers and digital SLRs—boarded the Condor Express for a voyage to Coal Oil Point, where Venoco Inc. harvests fuel from the Santa Barbara Channel’s natural gas and oil seeps.
Offering tours for over a decade, Venoco takes passengers out to Coal Oil Point, which has the second largest concentration of natural seeps in the world. An oil seep, much like a hot spring, leaks natural gas and oil from reservoirs deep in the ground. Nearly 6,000 gallons of oil and five million cubic feet of natural gas rise from the ocean floor each day.
The two-hour boat ride takes passengers two miles out to Platform Holly, Venoco’s offshore oil platform, which pipes oil and gas to storage facilities. Along the way, Venoco Vice President Mike Edwards, and narrator of the tour, pointed out marine wildlife and commented on the passing landscape.
“Now, just for you guys, we hired this sea lion. There — he’s waving at you,” Edwards said as we passed groups of sea lions parked on buoys. The tour often sees bottlenose dolphins and birds, and sometimes sees whales.
While most passengers on board were there simply to enjoy the boat ride, for the persistently curious, Edwards is well versed in oil seep lore. Some passengers wandered through the captain’s cabin to chat and ask questions.
The boat slowed to a bob by a patch of ocean several feet wide, where, like fizzy soda, rising gas formed bubbles in the water that burst when they reach the atmosphere. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of gasoline. In other parts of the water, seepage caused a persistent oil slick that gave the water a patchy, iridescent sheen. Oil rises naturally to the surface of the water and eventually becomes tar.
ARCO currently captures fuel from these seeps using large steel tent structures placed over areas of heavy leakage. According to the UCSB Hydrocarbon Seeps Project, which conducts geological surveys and studies emissions from the seeps, the current rate of capture is equivalent to emissions from 35,000 cars.
“We all walk on the beach and get tar on our feet, and we look up and see a platform,” said Edwards, explaining why Venoco offers these tours. “The reason the platforms are there is because there’s so much oil in the area — the oil isn’t coming from us, and the general public, a lot of the time, doesn’t realize that.”