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The renewed threat of offshore drilling – by geologist Thomas Cochrane

By Thomas Cochrane

The bad news is we now have a party in power who wants more oil production and offshore drilling. The good news is that for the oil and gas industry to actually be able to drill off the California coast it will require a long process with a sizable amount of paperwork and public input. This gives us several steps we can take to slow and hopefully even prevent offshore oil drilling.

There is no doubt there is oil and gas out there: oil sand outcrops in Arena Cove, offshore basins stretch the length of the California coast, and the known rock formations are the same ones which produce oil offshore in Santa Barbara. We can, however, contest that the amount of oil and gas is uneconomic in warranting offshore drilling. The offshore basins are narrow, highly faulted, thicker sections of Pleistocene un-productive rocks, etc.

Approximately 15 exploratory wells have already been drilled offshore north of Santa Barbara. None of them found a prolific oil field or more drilling and leasing would have occurred. We have both state and federal jurisdictions governing the offshore region, and the California Coastal Commission regulates uses along the adjoining shore. Offshore National Monuments and protected areas prevent drilling north of Santa Barbara to Point Arena. We need to set up, extend, or annex the rest of offshore northern California into protected zones.

We should work toward getting the Gualala River estuary and other northern rivers included as part of the offshore protected zones. The seismic lines the oil industry has offshore are 10 –15 miles apart and only produce regional interpretations of the geology from very old data. The oil industry will want new, state-of-the-art seismic data to define exploratory targets. We can protest the shooting of new seismic lines with a good chance of success. Ah-h the poor whales, the baby seals, migrating salmon, sea birds, abalone, crab fishing, the sport and commercial fishing industry, tourism, etc., etc.

Once the oil and gas industry decides it wants to drill, companies will need to obtain leases in order to do so. These leases must be put up for competitive bidding. This will disclose to us where they want to drill. We can then draw in the adjacent neighbors as particularly interested parties in providing their input at public meetings —a process which has the added benefit of extending the nomination period.

Since the lease bidding is competitive, it will attract several different companies. We can then examine the record of some of these companies and their past environmental disasters. We can provide input based on this information regarding the proposed terms of the leases, and the royalties the companies currently pay to states and the federal government. We need to push our legislative representatives for higher royalties, especially for California, and insist those funds be set aside for environmental cleanup in the event of any resulting pollution from drilling activities.

Before drilling permits are issued an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be conducted. The public has input at several opportunities — when it is proposed, at public meetings for a first draft, and at final draft time. Of course, we will point out the need for more studies and information. No drilling fluids, drilling mud, or rock samples are to be dumped into the ocean. Then there is the question of where are they going to dispose of these materials? Not in our backyard! We want no unlined open pits. We want no injection of fluids into formations adjacent to the water table.

Exploratory wells (wildcats) are drilled from drilling ships. The safety regulations of these ships need to be vigorously examined as this problem was already highlighted in the Gulf of Mexico blowout.

If successful in finding large amounts of economic reserves of oil and gas, a Production Platform for the offset and production drilling will need to be constructed. This is another time when public input is permitted and should be used to contest these proposals and secure further environmental protection. We would be able to see these from shore (thus hurting tourism), the platforms would sit inside commercial shipping lanes, they would interfere with fish and bird migration patterns, etc.

A pipeline to the shore will be proposed. We can easily contest that one on environmental grounds, and it’s doubtful anyone will grant a permit to put the pipeline on their property. Then the oil industry will settle for oil tanker ships to take the oil to refineries and on to market. We should be able to regulate and specify when they cannot dock in their mission to get the oil in light of weather considerations, etc. We also need to insist on double-hulled oil tankers with American registry—e.g. no offshore companies whom we cannot locate if a lawsuit becomes necessary at some point!

With all these hurdles for the oil industry to jump through, we should be able to leverage the public’s right to have input throughout a protracted process—one which may delay and stall any proposed drilling for 10 –15 years. By then, BP should have evolved into a truly Beyond Petroleum company; green energy will dominate the energy production businesses by then, the demand for petroleum will be significantly reduced, and environmentalists will occupy the White House and legislatures. With the health of our fragile coastline at stake, we must all be part of this imperative process and continue this fight step by step.

Tom has been invited by Sonoma Land Trust to co-lead the coastal portion of their annual Geology Transect (Sept. 8th & 9th), and he's also giving a lecture at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in September 9th. General Admission is $10, Students $5. Buy tickets here. Copperfields is also hosting an author event with him on 9/10, Come and learn more about the earth beneath our feet.

Thomas E. Cochrane is a CA Professional Geologist (License #6124) who’s lived and worked on The Sea Ranch since 1988. Having begun his career as a teacher, he has several upcoming free public talks on local geology and plate tectonics scheduled. His recently-published book, Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast – Exploring the Coastal Geology of Northern California (River Beach Press, 2017, 156 pgs., $19.95) is available at over 45 retailers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties including all Copperfield’s locations, Sonoma Outfitters, and the CA Welcome Center in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, as well as To learn more and see the roster of retailers plus upcoming events visit

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