More than three decades have passed
since the Santa Barbara oil spill, but the accident still haunts
this whale-watcher's Eden at Carpinteria, Calif.
Just ask Venoco Inc., which owns and operates three
production platforms here, with the associated unique challenges.
For example, while producers elsewhere face only tumbleweeds, Venoco
must constantly manage diplomatic relations with 100 neighbors living
right next to its facilities — a permanent colony of harbor seals.
The sight of marine mammals snug against a service
pier and two pipelines is but one of this area's reminders of the
intrusion of oil on paradise. Venoco provides public access to view
the rookery, just part of its extensive community outreach.
But a lot of people have never liked the industry.
They want it out. They always have.
"The average amount of oil spilled from platforms,
drilling and pipelines (since the big spill) averages about 28 barrels
a year," says Rod Eson, Venoco's CEO and co-founder. "The industry
has done an incredible job improving what we do. But the environmentalists
still point to the pictures of the spill more than 30 years ago
and say, 'This is what you guys are all about.'"
Perhaps the 1969 spill can't fade into history because
it created history, giving birth to the local group Get Oil Out,
and some say also to Earth Day and the modern environmental movement.
Notable, too, much of the production here includes
sour gas, which has always frightened people, one reason for decades
of opposition to onshore processing.
The area has numerous natural oil and gas seeps,
and the largest emits over 1,000 barrels of oil a week into coastal
waters. But that's easier for locals to accept than having 21 production
platforms interrupting the area's fantasy sunsets. So even though
the 1989 Alaska tanker spill eclipsed the smaller incident here
20 years earlier, this is still ground zero for American
"There are people here who were involved in the '69
cleanup who had oiled birds die in their arms," said AAPG member
Karen Christensen, Venoco's exploration
Soon, a local museum will add a new exhibit on the
1969 spill. That kind of exposure might make some companies cringe,
but Venoco is also sponsoring an exhibit on the importance of oil
and gas development in the Santa Barbara Channel, and Eson serves
on the museum board. Like other corporations, Venoco sees citizenship
as a duty and a business necessity.
But unlike many, it acts on those values with a striking
mix of enthusiasm and creativity.
'Different Kind of Oil Company'
Founded in 1992, privately-held Venoco happily took
on its highly-regulated offshore properties, along with fields on
the Beverly Hills High School campus, in a Texas wildlife preserve
and in the Sacramento Basin, where neighbors range from concerned
duck clubs to delicate rice farms.
The strategy: Buy non-core or under evaluated, mature
properties — ideally, from departing majors such as Chevron and
Mobil — at smart prices, in prickly areas that few others will
touch. Then, revitalize them with savvy geoscience, technology and
Seals of approval: Venoco's Platform Holly is an ideal spot for
basking in the sun and people-watching on a perfect California day.
Venoco calls itself "a different kind of oil company."
At local events, for example, it often displays a Toyota Prius hybrid-electric
sedan bearing the company motto, Energy, Safety, Community. It's
an engaging way to suggest that "green" vehicles and a healthy local
E&P industry are part of the same whole.
Venoco has earned grudging respect from many locals,
and won awards from civic organizations and praise from government.
In 2002, it was named business of the year by three different chambers
of commerce. Hundreds of people have taken Venoco's boat tours of
the world-renowned natural seeps.
Despite these and others' efforts, opposition, moratoria
and lawsuits have kept offshore exploration (not production) here
at a virtual standstill since the early 1980s. Meanwhile, opinion
polls continue to show high public disfavor for oil companies.
And local elected officials stand firm: "The Central
Coast has seen the devastation of an oil spill," congresswoman Lois
Capps said in 2001, "and our community views any new drilling as
a threat to our environment and economy."
Against these kinds of odds, how does Venoco know
its outreach is making a difference?
The answer: feedback.
Officials, teachers and kids who visit facilities
send e-mails and thank-you notes, which fill a scrapbook in the
home-office lobby. People say positive things at social events.
Non-profit groups supported by Venoco have spoken up for the company
when criticism seemed unfair.
"The key to getting respect in the community is being
in the community," Eson said. "We take people out and show them
what we're doing. Most have no idea of what we have to do to operate
cleanly. They see how we behave, that we do the right things and
go a step beyond rules and regulations."
They see also, Eson added, that oil people "don't
have tails and horns."
Friends, Not Enemies
Venoco donates $400,000 to $700,000 each year to
charities, Eson said, with a 12-member employee committee screening
the gifts. It also maintains a separate budget for energy education
and community outreach.
Meanwhile, numerous employees do volunteer work,
much of which is on company time, with Eson's blessing.
Karen Robertson-Fall, a former elementary school
teacher, directs Venoco's education and community outreach, and
she specializes in making sure programs and materials (especially
those at www.venocoinc.com)
are understandable. Too often, she says, well-meaning scientists
and engineers go out to talk about energy, but the audiences can't
absorb the technical explanations.
Venoco has taken extra effort to simplify technical
jargon and show visually and hands-on how their operations work.
Further, she continued, building relationships requires
extra attention to changing needs. For example — what happens if
some teachers can't leave the classroom for an offshore tour because
there's no money for substitute-teacher fees?
Solution: Venoco covers the fees.
Venoco sponsors beach cleanups and gives away sunscreen
packets and sunglasses marked, "made from petroleum."
One recent Saturday, Venoco supported a fair, a fiesta,
a festival, two fundraising dinners and a tour. The company shares
data and good relations with the local university. It also hands
out thousands of desk calendars showing local wildlife co-existing
with energy facilities. Company brochures feature real employees,
putting a human face on energy.
Venoco has learned what is effective — and what
Vice president for public and government affairs
Mike Edwards has found, for example, that companies seldom make
headway by lecturing people about their dependence on oil. True,
California consumes more than twice the oil it produces. Spill risk
is greater from tankers than offshore platforms. But if consumers
don't want to acknowledge the links between offshore oil, gasoline
and lifestyle, that's just a fact of oil-business life.
"Inform people and let them decide," Eson advised.
"Not everyone is going to approve of what you want to do. That's
their right. But they need to have the facts. There are people who
don't care what the facts are. But the majority of the public is
not like that.
"They want to be informed and make up their own mind."
Facing the Challenges
For Venoco, that includes raising facts that aren't
pretty. On tours, Edwards always brings up the 1969 spill, when
80,000-plus barrels fouled 40 miles of coastline. He explains how
the oil escaped from a too-shallow casing into an unconsolidated
zone, then spewed from the sea floor.
Who could blame people back then for concluding that
Mother Nature could surprise Big Oil at any time, with disastrous
Edwards also shows people the gas bubbling to the
surface at the offshore natural seeps near Coal Oil Point — a natural
wonder, instead of a natural enemy. He talks about Venoco's huge,
submerged "seep tents," which capture gas that would otherwise pollute
the air. And he explains that with industry diligence, extensive
well casing, improved technology and today's tough regulations,
chances are slim-to-none that another 1969 spill could ever happen.
Venoco produces about 15,000 BOE per day, most of
it from offshore. To spread risk and raise capital, it wants to
sell 50 percent of its wholly-owned offshore operations. The company
wants to add more gas, onshore and international properties.
The latest came in Beverly Hills, where legal activist
Erin Brockovich (profiled in the 2000 hit movie of the same name)
threatened to sue Venoco and prior owners of the oil and gas field,
claiming that fumes caused former students to develop cancer. School
and air-quality officials are disputing the claims, however, and
Venoco has a good relationship with the school and community.
addition to official commendations for its clean operations, the
company recently won kudos for supporting a project to decorate
its 165-foot working derrick with artwork from terminally ill children.
Called the Tower of Hope, it provides a colorful counterpoint
to the negative Brockovich publicity.
Like others at Venoco, Eson has watched the oil and
gas community struggle with its negative image for years. He is
asked: Is it possible the industry deserves its bad reputation?
"I think we deserve it from the standpoint that we
haven't done enough to dispel it," he responds.
Asked if he thinks things will get better or worse,
he says, "I don't think it's going to get any easier."
He certainly should know. For example, based on regular
interaction with more than a dozen government entities, Venoco believes
that its Platform Holly and associated facilities may be the most
regulated and inspected oil and gas complex in California. That
just might make it the most regulated in the world.
Still, Venoco stays its course.
"We say, 'Come talk to us. We'll show you our operations,'"
Eson said. "Early on, we decided we would let people know what we
do, open the doors. If somebody sees something they don't like,
we'll address those concerns."
So, what would he say to those who may be fed up
with trying to convince a hostile public to give the industry the
benefit of the doubt?
"I'd encourage them to go into another business,
and tell them I'd like to make an offer on their assets," he said.
"This is not for the faint of heart."