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Natural Petroleum Seeps Offer Clues to the Past and the Future

August 1, 2006

Just a half mile off California’s coast near Santa Barbara, and in
coastal areas around the world, natural petroleum seeps are releasing
an astonishing amount of methane gas and oil into the environment each
year—much more than accidental oil spills and runoff from roads on a
worldwide basis. At the Santa Barbara seeps, about 5,000 gallons of
methane and oil leak every day. Some of the methane, which is a
greenhouse gas, can reach the atmosphere and have potential
implications for climate change. The oil can be naturally degraded by
microbes and disappear before it reaches the surface, but some appears
as tar balls on the beach. Geochemists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution (WHOI), funded by grants from the Department of Energy and
the Seaver Institute, are studying this natural laboratory to better
understand the fate and effects of oil in the marine environment, and
how natural populations of microbes in the ocean eat, or biodegrade,
the oil. Researchers hope understanding these natural processes can be
applied to the clean-up of future oil spills and the remediation of
contaminated sites.