Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
Natural Oil & Gas Seeps in California
Unlike man-made pollutants, most oil and gas seeps are produced by natural geologic processes that take place over millions of years. Though natural, they can pollute our air and waterways.
By knowing where natural oil and gas seeps occur, we can distinguish their effects on the environment from the effects of man-made oil and gas leaks and spills.
Some examples of potential environmental problems resulting from oil and gas seeps are shown in these photographs.
This natural oil seep, at the base of a sea cliff near Santa Barbara, covers the beach sand with an impressive build-up of black asphaltum. This tar-like substance is eroded by waves to form pesky tar-balls, which are carried by longshore currents to other beaches, miles away.
Naturally occurring gas seeps, such as this one in Humboldt County, contain methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Natural oil seeps like this one, at Tar Water Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains, can degrade water quality and endanger wildlife.
Oil is a common companion of mercury, the most toxic of natural metals.
This chunk of mercury ore, from the abandoned New Almaden mercury mine near San Jose, California, has oil hiding inside tiny vugs and in the area stained brown on the righthand side of the specimen. Geologists think hot fluids carried the mercury and oil from deep underground.