The Ecology of Oil Seeps in Central California
As part of USGS continuing efforts to understand natural oil seeps and their impact on the onshore
environment, a multi-agency team investigated the Sargent oil field just south of Gilroy, CA, last summer.
This is a cooperative venture among the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP), and the
California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources (CDOGGR)
and Division of Mines and Geology (CDMG). Rick Stanley and Bob McLaughlin (USGS, Earth Surface
Processes) and Dave Wagner (CDMG) mapped the rocks. Les Magoon (USGS, Earth Surface Processes)
and Tom Lorenson (CMGP) collected samples of oil and gas from seeps and oil wells. Bill Fedasko and
Ross Brunetti (CDOGGR) mapped the seeps and located oil wells using GIS equipment. Paul Lillis
(USGS, Energy Resources) and Keith Kvenvolden, Fran Hostettler, Jon Kolak, Tom Lorenson, and
Bob Rosenbauer of the Menlo Park organic geochemistry group are performing geochemical analyses.
California Pacific Blacktail doe
browsing in the rich vegetation supported by water and oil seepage.
With active oil seeps at its eastern and western ends, the study area is the most extensive area of
oil seepage in northern California. Approximately 3 acres of land are covered in black, dense, sticky
tar from several seeps. Nearby pump jacks working in the oil field nod approval and bring heavy,
biodegraded oil with carbon-dioxide-rich hydrocarbon gas to the surface.
|The western portion of
Sargent oil-field seeps. Note the extensive area of seepage, the trees and shrubs at the upper part of the
seeps, and the green grasses and shrubs at the lower part of the seeps.
The thought of oozing tar bubbling out onto the California landscape brings environmental disaster to
mind. Surprisingly, we found the areas around seeps to be biologically more active than the surrounding
neighborhood, partly because oil and water seep to the surface together. The photographs show that the
grass is greener and the shrubs more abundant at the oil seeps. In fact, inhabitants of the area seem to
like the tar.
Surprisingly, we found the areas around seeps to be biologically more active than the surrounding
neighborhood, partly because oil and water seep to the surface together.
For example, the doe in the photograph at the top of this page is browsing in an area affected by oil seepage.
California oil seeps are home to the petroleum fly, Helaemyia petrolei, which relies exclusively on tar
seeps to feed its larvae. This fly is a species that depends on oil seeps for its existence. The petroleum
fly larvae feed on bacteria that eat oil, and the flies supplement their diet with organic matter that falls
into the sticky seeps along with other insects and plant debris. The petroleum fly is just one example
of the biota associated with oil seeps.
Contrary to expectations, natural oil in small quantities provides
valuable habitat in California. Only when large volumes are rapidly spilled in areas unaccustomed to oil
do we see the negative effects of oil pollution.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
in this issue:
Oil Seep Ecology
Oceanographic Instrument Recovery
Lidar Data Software
Moloka'i Earth Day
Earth Day in St. Pete
Florida Oceans Day 2001
Rocks for Teachers II
Delmarva Coastal Bays
Oceanology International Americas
Amy Farris: Physics Honors Day
Falmouth Road Race
Gaye Farris New President of NAGC
VisitorDr. Ingo Percher
Office of Communications
May Publications List