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Postre: Oil Spills, Natural and Man-Made (Randy Black, US) (Randy Black, USA, 07/05/10 6:37 am)
Randy Black responds to Massoud Malek's post of 3 July:
Amidst all of the hand wringing, media hysteria and political attacks on BP and ExxonMobil regarding the global addiction to fossil fuels, it's easy to overlook that spills, huge spills, far larger than any man-made spill occur naturally, off California, off the US Gulf Coast and elsewhere around the world each year, dating to tens of thousands of years back. Those spills occur naturally and having nothing to do with man or his engines.
Whether we discuss ExxonMobil's troubles 25 miles off Nigeria's coast, the Exxon Valdez accident more than two decades ago, the hundreds of well blowouts across Russia over the past century, the Mexican well loss 30 plus years ago in the Gulf of Mexico that fouled Texas beaches for 10.5 months, or the ongoing BP two month old problems off Louisiana, we'll still have oil-fouled beaches. Even if we shut down the hundreds of off shore wells in the Gulf, even if we find a way to convince China not to drill off Southeast Asia, even if we magically find a way to substitute something for fossil fuels. Even if we do away with asphalt roads, fossil fuel burning engines and all fossil fuels in general use, we'd still have oil on our beaches. Natural seepage has produced far more oil and gas into our environment over the past few thousand years than a thousand Gulf accidents or Exxon Valdez crashes.
In fact, far earlier than the internal combustion engine, Native Americans 'mined' the natural oil seepage off the American coasts and used the petroleum to seal baskets and for other purposes. Seeps are common and natural. In the Gulf Coast there are more than 600 natural oil seeps that leak about one million barrels of oil per year (and have done so for eons).
You know what? Fish still swim in the ocean, birds still hunt those fish, turtles and crabs still propagate and eventually, the ocean recovers. Case in point: The Mexicans lost a well that flowed onto Texas beaches in 1979 for 10.5 months.
Go to South Padre today (the beaches nearest the Mexican well blowout and you won't find a hint of left over trouble from that event. And believe me, the Mexican state-owned oil company did not send thousands of workers and thousands of boats with oil skimming equipment and dispersants to clean up the mess then, as does BP today in the couple of dozen beaches where the BP oil is washing up. In fact, the biggest complaint along the Gulf Coast is from the mayors of dozens of resorts along the coast that this entire matter is a media driven event that is killing tourism along the majority of beaches that have no damage or oil.
Huge, natural seeps have been spewing oil and gas into the Santa Barbara Channel for centuries. According to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and other sources, the resulting tar was used by the Chumash and other native populations for water-proofing baskets and pitchers and for caulking small boats. Early California pioneers (circa 1850) used the oil from natural seeps to grease their wagon wheels and settlers and ranchers, especially in the Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange county areas, used seeped oil for lubricating farm machinery, for tarring roofs, and for illumination. http://www.soscalifornia.org/facts.html
The world's largest natural oil seepage is Coal Oil Point in the Santa Barbara Channel, California. Two of the better known tar seep locations in California are McKittrick and the La Brea Tar Pits.
In McKittrick Oil Field in western Kern County, there are numerous seeps. Some of the seeps flow into drainages that drain toward the San Joaquin Valley floor.
The McKittrick seeps were mined for asphalt by the native Americans, and in the 1870s, larger scale mining was undertaken by means of both open pits and shafts. In 1893, Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a line to Asphalto, 2 miles from present day McKittrick. Fuel oil for the railroad was advantageous, especially since there are very few coal bearing formations in California.
The biggest spill ever was off Kuwait and caused by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi forces dumped an estimated 6-8 million barrels of oil from tankers and oil terminals into the Persian Gulf, intending to set it on fire and thwart the US military.
JE comments: Randy Black puts the present crisis in perspective, but such an argument is of little comfort to the Gulf, its ecosystem, its inhabitants, and its economy. Mexico, like elsewhere, has always experienced natural seepage of "chapopote" (crude oil, tar). Farmers lived in fear of the Black Curse, which rendered land useless for crops. Most of them in the early 1900s were relieved to sell their land to the oil companies for a song. There's an excellent 1968 novel by Rodolfo Benavides, La maldición negra, on the "chapopoteras."