By Jon Heiner, Daily Nexus, April 24, 1973
Oil on the beach, long a source of student discontent, has been the subject of an investigation by Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Paul Mikolaj.
Recalling that when he came here four years ago , he anticipated enjoying the local beaches, he shared the disappointment that many students felt when they learned that tar-coated feet are the inevitable companions of a stroll along the ocean.
Mikolaj soon discovered that while the oil spill had made oil into an issue that was “tossed around like a ping pong ball,” very little was actually known about the origin of the tar on the beach.
Several of his studies, and a study prepared by Santa Barbara’s General Research Corporation that Mikolaj assisted, point to natural seepage off Coal Oil Point as the primary culprit in oiling the beaches.
A combination of aerial, surface and underwater investigation has disclosed that natural seepage accounts for 50 to 70 barrels of oil per day, while seepage around Union Oil’s drilling platform contributes between seven and fifteen barrels. A barrel is about 42 gallons.
The oil from these underwater seepages floats to the surface where it forms oil slicks or where it forms globs of tar that are deposited on the beach.
The oil seepage has less effect on undersea life than might be expected, according to the General Research report. “Marine life in general was quite abundant even in the areas of concentrated oil seepage,” their divers report.
Although the oil released on any one day is small than even small oil spills, it becomes quite significant when it is recalled that this is a more or less constant source of pollution.
In the past four years, Mikolaj observes, “the total volume of the oil released from the Coal Oil Point seeps is comparable to that which flowed from Union Oil Company’s Platform A during and immediately after the blowout.”
“Considering the fact that natural oil seepage has been occurring for centuries,” he asks, “why is not the entire Santa Barbara Channel coastline paved with tar?”
The most important reason the beaches are not completely covered with oil is that much of it evaporates, Mikolaj found. A large part of the crude oil consists of light hydrocarbons such as those that form gasoline. These evaporate, leaving the heavier tars that are found on the beach.
In addition, some of the tar is deposited on the ocean floor, and chemical and biological degradation removes much of the rest.
The General Research Report proposes a number of methods of reducing the oil seeps. One possibility is the use of “jelling agents that could cause the oil to harden forming its own seal in the ocean floor.” Another method might involve drilling and removing the oil from the reservoirs that supply the natural seeps.
Mikolaj notes that the seeps are not from the same reservoirs that are supplying commercial oil production. The seep reservoirs are small, and are uneconomical for oil production.
While it would be possible to reduce or eliminate the oil seepage that now plagues the area, Mikolaj feels that it would be too expensive to make it worthwhile. Because there are more pressing problems than making the beaches safe for students, Mikolaj is resigned to the conclusion that “we will simply have to live with it” for the foreseeable future.