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Mel's Mess: Tar as a Natural Resource & Oil Rigs' Impact on Nature

Tar, a complex hydrocarbon substance formed over millions of years, is undeniably a natural resource with both positive and negative aspects. Its origins trace back to ancient marine ecosystems, where organic matter underwent a transformation into petroleum, ultimately seeping to the surface and giving rise to tar seeps. As time progressed, the organic material from these ancient organisms experienced a process of decomposition and change, eventually contributing to the creation of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. However, the presence of these valuable natural resources has introduced a conflicting element into this intricate natural lifecycle, sparking concerns about the environmental impact of oil rigs and their potential disruption to the delicate balance of ecosystems. In this blog, our focus turns to the intriguing presence of tar in Los Angeles.


The Natural Bounty of Tar

Tar's presence in locations such as the world-famous La Brea Tar Pits transcends its mere physical appearance, offering us an unparalleled opportunity to peer back in time. These tar pits are not just geological anomalies; they are veritable time capsules that preserve moments of prehistoric life in astonishing detail. As the tar's viscous embrace ensnared ancient creatures, it captured not only their physical forms but also the stories of their lives - their movements, behaviors, and interactions. This ancient snapshot provides a unique window into the past, allowing scientists and researchers to piece together the puzzle of evolution, glimpse the climatic conditions of bygone eras, and reconstruct the intricate web of ecological relationships that defined these distant ecosystems. 

Beyond its role as a historical artifact, tar has found its way into the very infrastructure that supports our modern lives. Its application in road construction, with the creation of asphalt, has paved the way for smooth transportation networks that connect communities and fuel economic progress. Roofs fortified with tar-based materials stand as guardians against the elements, protecting our homes and workplaces from rain and weather. In various industries, from manufacturing to marine coatings, tar-derived products exhibit their versatility by offering solutions that safeguard structures, insulate materials, and enhance durability. In this way, tar's value as a raw material has woven itself into the fabric of our technological achievements, contributing to the advancement of societies by enabling innovation and progress.


The Intrusion of Oil Rigs

While tar seeps are a natural occurrence, the introduction of oil rigs alters the dynamics of this natural cycle. Offshore oil drilling disrupts ecosystems, potentially leading to oil spills, habitat destruction, and the release of harmful pollutants into the environment. The exploration, extraction, and transportation of crude oil bring significant environmental risks, threatening marine life, coastal habitats, and water quality.

The first known oil rig was built in 1859 by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA. This rig, commonly referred to as "Drake's Folly," marked the birth of the modern oil industry. Edwin Drake's successful drilling operation was a pivotal moment, as it demonstrated the feasibility of drilling for oil on a commercial scale. The well he drilled reached a depth of about 69 feet (approximately the same size as a six story building) and produced oil, effectively initiating the era of oil exploration and extraction. This event played a significant role in shaping the global energy landscape and setting the stage for the growth of the petroleum industry.

Offshore oil drilling in the California ocean began in the early 20th century with the launch of the Summerland Oil Field, near Santa Barbara, in 1896. One of the notable Cali developments was the discovery of the Huntington Beach Oil Field in 1920. This marked the beginning of more intensive offshore oil exploration and drilling along the California coast. In the subsequent decades, advancements in drilling technology and growing demand for oil led to the establishment of multiple offshore oil platforms and wells in the state.

The federal government and state agencies established regulations and guidelines to manage offshore drilling activities and address environmental concerns. The development of the oil industry along the California coast has been met with a mixture of economic benefits, environmental challenges, and regulatory efforts to balance energy needs with environmental protection.

One of the earliest significant legislative acts addressing offshore drilling was the "Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act" (OCSLA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 1953.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act empowered the federal government to regulate the exploration, development, and production of minerals, including oil and gas, on the outer continental shelf of the United States. It also established the framework for lease sales, permitting, and environmental considerations related to offshore drilling in federal waters.

The passage of the OCSLA was a response to the growing interest in offshore oil exploration and production and the need to address potential environmental impacts and safety concerns associated with drilling activities. Over the years, subsequent legislation and regulations have further refined and expanded the regulatory framework for offshore drilling, with the goal of balancing energy development with environmental protection and safety standards.

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on the decommissioning of offshore oil and gas infrastructure along the coast of California. Federal and state agencies have been working collaboratively to address the environmental, safety, and economic considerations associated with the removal of aging platforms and structures. One pivotal effort in this direction is the Department of the Interior's development of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a comprehensive assessment that evaluates the potential effects of decommissioning activities on the marine ecosystem, local communities, and the economy.

The Department of the Interior's commitment to environmental stewardship is evident in its dedication to conducting a thorough EIS. This process involves a multidisciplinary approach, engaging experts in various fields to analyze the potential impacts and benefits of decommissioning. The EIS evaluates factors such as the removal of offshore platforms, potential impacts on marine habitats, effects on the local economy, and safety considerations. By conducting such an in-depth analysis, the agency aims to ensure that decommissioning activities align with environmental regulations, promote ecosystem health, and address potential concerns raised by stakeholders and local communities.

Incorporating stakeholder input is a crucial aspect of the EIS process. The agency actively seeks input from environmental organizations, coastal communities, industry representatives, and the public. This collaborative approach allows for a well-rounded understanding of the complex factors at play and encourages a sense of shared responsibility in shaping the future of California's coastline.

The state of California also plays a significant role in advancing decommissioning efforts. The California State Lands Commission (SLC) is actively engaged in managing the process of platform decommissioning. The SLC reviews decommissioning plans, ensuring they adhere to state regulations, and facilitates the coordination between various agencies involved in the process.

At California Ocean Day 2023, Dr. Jeremy Claisse delved into the transformation of Oil Rigs into artificial reefs for marine life. He highlighted that the complete removal of these structures could potentially harm these reef habitats. Ongoing research is investigating whether a safer approach would involve partially deconstructing the oil rig, ensuring minimal disturbance to marine habitats, while also blocking the pipeline to prevent oil leaks. Alternatively, the study is exploring whether marine life could adeptly adapt to the total removal of the structure. 


Disruption of Natural Cycles

The introduction of oil rigs into the tranquil expanse of marine environments marks a profound disruption to the delicate balance of the natural order. These towering human-made structures, while emblematic of technological advancement, wield a transformative power that extends far beyond their physical presence. As they settle onto the ocean's surface, they set off a chain reaction of changes that intricately interweave with the marine ecosystem.

At the most fundamental level, the very flow of ocean currents, once dictated by the whims of tides and winds, is subjected to the influence of these interlopers. The rig's solid form redirects the natural rhythm of currents, creating eddies and swirls that cascade outward, impacting the distribution of nutrients, sediments, and vital resources that marine life depends upon. The subtle equilibrium that marine organisms have evolved to harmonize with is cast into flux, forcing them to adapt to this abrupt alteration or risk being swept away by the tides of change.

However, the transformations are not solely physical. Noise, that intangible but powerful force, emanates from the drilling operations, permeating the watery realm with vibrations that disrupt the serene symphony of the deep. Marine animals, finely attuned to the subtle sounds that guide their behaviors, are left disoriented and stressed by this uninvited cacophony. Breeding and feeding rituals, choreographed through eons of evolution, are suddenly thrown into disarray. Migratory patterns, meticulously navigated for generations, now bear the weight of unpredictability, as the soundscape they rely upon is distorted by the clamor of industrial activity.

In these ways, the presence of oil rigs imposes an intricate web of changes upon marine environments, altering the very fabric of existence for the creatures that inhabit them. As stewards of the oceans, it becomes imperative that we approach the decommissioning of such structures with sensitivity and foresight. By understanding and minimizing the impact of these disruptions, we can work toward harmonious coexistence, where human advancement and the rhythms of the natural world find common ground, ensuring the survival and thriving of marine ecosystems for generations to come.


Environmental Impacts

Oil spills stemming from offshore oil rigs can unleash a wave of catastrophic consequences that reverberate throughout marine ecosystems. The spilled oil, once unleashed into the delicate aquatic environment, morphs from a valuable energy resource into a pervasive threat. As it spreads, it enshrouds marine life in a toxic embrace, smothering delicate creatures and robbing them of their ability to breathe and move freely. This grim scenario paints a haunting picture of how oil pollution infiltrates every level of the marine food chain. The disruption of this intricate web of life ripples outward, impacting species upon species, as the normal flow of energy through the ecosystem becomes distorted and imbalanced.

The ramifications of oil spills extend beyond immediate physical harm. The once-clear waters become tainted, tainted with chemicals that infiltrate the very fabric of the environment. These contaminants infiltrate the habitats of marine organisms, infiltrating their tissues and infiltrating their vital life processes. In this relentless onslaught, water bodies that once nurtured and sustained life are transformed into toxic wastelands, rendering them inhospitable to even the hardiest of inhabitants.

Moreover, the repercussions of oil spills extend far beyond the reaches of the ocean. Coastal communities, both human and animal, bear the brunt of the aftermath. Fishermen find their livelihoods threatened as their catches dwindle, and tourism-dependent economies are stifled as visitors shy away from once-pristine shores now marred by oil's taint. Surfers, too, are deeply affected by the grim aftermath, as the once-inviting waves now carry the hidden danger of contamination. Meanwhile, the very communities that dot the coastline, whether comprised of people or wildlife, grapple with the long-term health effects of exposure to these pollutants. The consequences of oil spills are far-reaching, touching both the tangible fabric of ecosystems and the intangible bonds of communities.

In this complex tapestry of ecological interdependence, the potential for devastation looms large. As we confront the sobering reality of oil spills, we are compelled to recognize the immense importance of preventive measures, stringent regulations, and collaborative efforts to safeguard our oceans and coastlines. Through these actions, we can work towards mitigating the catastrophic impact of oil spills, ensuring the health and resilience of marine ecosystems and the well-being of the communities that depend on them.


Striving for Equilibrium: Sustainable Practices and Preservation

The intricate challenge at hand is a delicate dance between harnessing the bounties of nature to propel societal progress forward and safeguarding the intricate tapestry of ecosystems that serve as the lifeblood of our planet. Striking this harmonious equilibrium requires a multifaceted approach that navigates the realms of human ambition and environmental stewardship.

At the heart of this endeavor lies the imperative to adopt responsible drilling practices that respect the natural world's inherent fragility. This calls for a deep-seated commitment to minimizing the disruption caused by drilling operations. It entails employing cutting-edge technologies that mitigate environmental impact, prevent oil spills, and curtail the release of pollutants into the oceans. As the tools of our trade evolve, so too must our ethos of custodianship, with each innovation accompanied by an unwavering dedication to safeguarding the delicate ecosystems upon which we all depend.

A pivotal pillar in this mission is the establishment of stringent regulations that set the standards for operation in the high seas. These regulatory frameworks act as the compass guiding the course of offshore drilling activities. By imposing benchmarks that demand adherence to environmental safeguards, safety protocols, and ecological preservation, these regulations act as a bulwark against the unchecked pursuit of progress at the expense of nature's vitality.

To steer clear of reliance on oil, the imperative lies in crafting alternatives that align with ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) goals while safeguarding our planet's well-being. Countless organizations and researchers are fervently working to forge pathways brimming with environmentally friendly and recycled materials, poised to replace conventional asphalt. One notable endeavor unfolds at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where researchers are diligently evaluating the impact of recycled tire waste on the shear strength properties of recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) blended with crumb rubber—a concoction poised to revolutionize pavement construction.

As Earth Overshoot Day emerges on the horizon each year, its significance resonates as a poignant reminder. This day signals the moment when humanity's consumption of ecological resources and services in a given year outpaces what Earth can regenerate within that same span. The prospect of elongating the Earth's regeneration window hinges on the collective efforts of nations to curtail their annual depletion of natural resources. In doing so, we gift our planet additional time to heal and rejuvenate, a critical step toward building a more sustainable and harmonious future.

The transformation to a sustainable future extends beyond conventional paradigms, beckoning us to chart a course toward cleaner energy alternatives. By investing in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, we weave a fabric of energy independence that is inherently more harmonious with nature's rhythms. The transition to cleaner energy not only mitigates the environmental toll but also underscores our commitment to a future that thrives without compromising the ecosystems that lend us life.

In this complex journey, the tension between progress and preservation serves as a crucible for innovation. It is here that responsible drilling practices, stringent regulations, and the embrace of cleaner energy alternatives converge to shape a future that bridges the gap between humanity's aspirations and the sanctity of our shared natural heritage. By treading this path, we stand on the threshold of a transformative era—one where progress and environmental stewardship become steadfast companions, propelling us toward a world where balance is not just a vision but a living reality.


A Call to Safeguard our Natural Heritage

Amid the intricate tapestry of Earth's offerings, tar emerges as a treasure trove that has gifted us with precious insights into epochs past and propelled modern civilization forward. Its presence in the La Brea Tar Pits, like an ancient scribe's ink, has transcribed the behaviors and dramas of prehistoric life, allowing us to traverse time itself. This remarkable journey back through eons has furnished us with revelations about evolution, climate shifts, and the intricate ecological ballet that shaped the destiny of species.

Yet, within this narrative of discovery and progress, an undercurrent of caution ripples. The towering specter of oil rigs, a symbol of human ambition, casts a shadow that stretches beyond the horizon. As they thrust themselves into marine environments, they disrupt the cadence of natural lifecycles, altering currents, muddying waters, and disturbing the harmonious pulse of ecosystems honed over millennia. It is here that the romance with the subterranean gifts of our planet collides with the sobering reality of ecological imbalance, as the intrusion of oil rigs marks a dissonant note in nature's symphony.

In this age where the echoes of environmental crises resound, our roles as stewards of this planet become not just a mantle, but a moral imperative. We are entrusted with the custodianship of Earth's natural wealth, including the enigmatic allure of tar. Our mandate is to engineer a sustainable equilibrium that permits us to harness these resources for progress while embracing our solemn duty to safeguard the intricate web of life that dances around us.

This monumental task is threaded with hope, as we navigate a course through responsible choices, visionary policies, and collaborative action. The impetus lies in the championing of cleaner technologies that reshape our relationship with energy and resources. In this epoch of innovation, our pursuit of solutions that respect nature's delicate balance can forge a pathway towards a symbiotic existence with the environment.

Moreover, our legacy is stitched into the fabric of conservation efforts that echo through time. Through collective action, we stand poised to secure the future, to ensure that the delicate ecosystems that tar touches, as well as the ecosystems it never meets, remain robust and resilient. The promise of tomorrow rests in the hands of today's decisions—a promise that resonates through generations yet to come, a testament to our ability to bridge aspirations and environmental ethics.

As we gaze upon the intersection of the past and the future, the enduring narrative of tar and the challenge of oil rigs converge as a poignant reminder. It underscores that we are not merely observers in nature's story but active participants, choreographers of a future where harmony, progress, and preservation intertwine seamlessly.


Surfrider Foundation's Call to Decommission Oil Rigs and Transforming California's Coastlines

The Surfrider Foundation, a tireless advocate for the protection of our oceans and coastlines, has launched a compelling campaign aimed at decommissioning offshore oil rigs—a crusade that underscores their commitment to preserving our marine ecosystems and promoting a sustainable future. This campaign, driven by a blend of passion, science, and advocacy, echoes the urgency of the times and reverberates with the organization's core ethos of environmental stewardship.

At its heart, the campaign encapsulates a multifaceted strategy that aims to catalyze transformative change by rallying communities, harnessing the power of policy reform, and channeling the scientific knowledge that informs informed decisions. Anchored in our vision of cleaner oceans and thriving coastal communities, the Surfrider Foundation unites like-minded individuals, coastal residents, surfers, and activists to amplify their collective voice and effect change on a scale beyond individual efforts.

Crucially, the Surfrider Foundation leverages its potent combination of scientific expertise and public engagement to illuminate the intricate consequences of offshore oil rigs. By weaving a narrative that navigates the realms of environmental degradation, economic implications, and the potential for renewable energy, they empower communities with knowledge that can kindle action. This coupling of knowledge with mobilization serves as the foundation of a movement that challenges the status quo and strives for a future where offshore oil drilling becomes a chapter in history.


Proper Cleanup Protocols for Beach Cleanups

The sight of tar washing up on shore can be both perplexing and concerning. This natural phenomenon, while intriguing in its own right, also presents a challenge when it comes to maintaining the health and beauty of our beaches. Understanding the causes, effects, and proper methods of cleaning up washed-up tar is essential for preserving our coastal environments.

When tar washes up on shorelines, it can have several negative impacts. It can adhere to the bodies of humans, animals and marine life, leading to ingestion or entanglement, which can be harmful or fatal. Tar can also contaminate the sand and water, posing a risk to beachgoers and local wildlife. Therefore, proper cleanup procedures are crucial to maintaining the health of the environment and the safety of those who enjoy it.

Efficient tar cleanup involves a systematic approach that balances effective removal with minimal disturbance to the ecosystem. Here are some key steps to consider:

  • Safety First: Prioritize safety by wearing protective gear such as gloves and possibly a mask to avoid direct contact with the tar.
  • Assessment: Survey the area to identify the extent of the tar contamination and any potential hazards.
  • Containment Use barriers, nets, or even natural features like rocks or sand to cordon off the affected area, preventing the tar from spreading further.
  • Manual Removal: Small patches of tar can often be removed manually using tools like shovels, scrapers, or rakes. Care should be taken to avoid disturbing sensitive habitats.
  • Absorbent Materials: For smaller quantities of tar, absorbent materials such as sand, sawdust, or absorbent pads can be used to soak up the substance. These materials can then be properly disposed of according to local regulations.
  • Professional Assistance: For larger or more complex tar spills, it's advisable to seek the assistance of trained professionals with experience in environmental cleanup.
  • Proper Disposal: Collected tar and contaminated materials should be disposed of according to local waste disposal regulations. Avoid washing the tar off into the ocean, as this can contribute to further pollution.
  • Tar Removal from Clothes, Body and Animals: Dawn Dish Soap has been proven and effective method since the Exxon Mobil Oil Spill in 1989.

Get Involved

From the Surfrider's campaign on 'Decommission California's Offshore Drilling Rigs' to the 'Culver City 'Inglewood Oil Field' Phase Out' and the 'LA County Oil Well Setback Ordinance', members of the Los Angeles Chapter have a multitude of avenues to engage and play a vital role in safeguarding our oceans: