Beauty and Menace Seen in Old Oil Rigs

Reef at oil platform Gilda off the Southern California coast. (Scott Gietler)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (CN) – When looking out toward the Channel Islands from any of the several scenic overlook points in Santa Barbara, California, one can easily spot the silhouettes arrayed against the oceanic horizon. The oil and gas platforms that dot the Santa Barbara Channel and elsewhere along this part of the California coast throw their shadows against the water during the day, and at night their lights glitter with an eerie beauty.

But for many that beauty evokes menace.

An explosion on one of the platforms in 1969 caused about 80,000 barrels of crude oil to spill into channel, fouling the beaches and choking seabirds, killing scores of dolphins, sea lions and other wildlife. It was the first major oil spill in the history of the United States.

Such spills aren’t relegated to the distant past, however. In 2015, an underwater pipeline called Line 901, which carries the oil extracted by Platform Holly and others to refineries up and down the Pacific coast ruptured and released about 3,400 barrels of oil, fouling several miles of coastline including several marine and wildlife sanctuaries.

The rupture rendered several of the platforms just off the coast of the small city of Goleta entirely inoperable. Venoco, an energy company that operates primarily in California that was extracting oil via Platform Holly, declared bankruptcy in 2017 in the aftermath of the oil spill.

While Hidalgo, Harvest, Hermosa, Heritage, Harmony and Hondo platforms – all rigs clearly visible from the Santa Barbara coast – were also shut down as a result of the oil spill, they are distinguished from Holly in that they are located in federal waters and are therefore under the purview of federal agencies like the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Fish swarm the reef at oil platform Gilda off the Southern California coast. (Donna Schroeder)

Venoco quitclaimed Holly to the California State Lands Commission, which then had to decide what to do with one of the most iconic platforms in California.

“We are at the beginning of what promises to be a very lengthy and complex process that will feature a lot of public engagement and environmental review,” said Sheri Pemberton, external affairs chief for the lands commission.

It is also expensive: The cost of dismantling all 27 oil and gas platforms off the California coast is pegged at $8 billion.

That process was jump-started this past May, when the lands commission announced it would decommission Platform Holly in two phases. First, they will plug and abandon the 30 wells near the platform, essentially ending the extraction of oil at the spot despite an estimated 85 million barrels of oil still underground.

The second phase entails the physical dismantling of the platform itself, using large cranes shipped from the Middle East to take apart the steel fixtures that buttress the platforms under the water.

The prospect of returning the coast to a pristine state is tantalizing to many residents and environmental activists in the area.

“We are appreciative of the opportunity to restore the Gaviota coast to what it could be,” said Marc Chytilo, of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy at a town hall meeting held by the commission in Gaviota this past fall.

But while there is near universal consensus that plugging the wells around Platform Holly is the first step – it’s already underway and should be completed in next 18 to 36 months – support for the second phase is far from unanimous.

“So far we don’t have a position,” said Molly Troup, a science and policy associate with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. “We want to wait and see what the environmental assessments say and what the scientific studies determine before we take a strong position.”

The lack of a firm stance is perhaps surprising for such a fierce environmental advocacy group, but Troup says it’s because of the nuance introduced into the issue mainly through the scientific work of two University of California, Santa Barbara, scientists: Milton Love and Ann Scarborough.

Scarborough and Love recently published a study in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management that concluded offshore oil and gas platforms not only act as reefs, but are in some ways more productive reefs than naturally occurring ones.

A healthy reef at an oil platform. (Scott Gietler)

“It is very surprising the amount of life that is underneath these platforms,” Scarborough said. “Whether it’s the Gulf of Mexico or the California coast, these rigs are highly productive reefs. It takes a little time after the platform is put in place, but over time, invertebrates, fish and other life are attracted and life grows to the point where it becomes an actual reef.”

Love said he has been diving, taking submarines and using remotely operated vehicles in and around the 27 oil rigs off the coast of California for the past 15 years and he never ceases to be astonished by the life teeming under platforms.

“The platforms also have a tendency to be de facto marine reserves,” he said. “Oil and gas companies tend not to like fishing boats coming around the rigs and shoo them away, so they end up not getting fished as much as natural reefs.”

This can have a positive effect on fish populations, particularly those that are endangered or overfished. For example, the cow cod – estimated to be at 4 percent of its historic population due to overfishing – has been found in the greatest numbers recently under an oil platform in Southern California, Love said.

While Scarborough says the study is the first to compile and document the way platforms act as artificial reefs, having studied more than 6,000 rigs around the world, she is aware the study has particular import in California where the state and federal governments are looking at decommissioning several rigs.

“California citizens are going to have to make decisions about the continued existence of vast marine life under the platforms, and they should be informed decisions,” she said.

Both researchers are quick to note they do not have a formal position on the issue as it currently stands, but instead have endeavored to provide objective scientific data for the public and decision-makers to mull.  

“Listen, you can be totally opposed to the oil and gas industry and be in favor of renewables, but the fact is these structures are there,” Love said. “No matter what you think about the oil industry and renewables there are millions of animals living under these platforms and you are going to have to decide what to do.”

The decisions are imminent too.

Pemberton of the state lands commission said the agency is currently slated to begin its first environmental analysis of dismantling Holly at the end of this year.

Healthy reef beneath an oil platform. (Kevin Lee)

On the federal side, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management oversees 23 platforms. Two of them – Grace and Gail – are in the same preliminary stage of decommissioning as Holly. All 23 are deep enough for consideration of permanent reefing, according to Love and Scarborough.

Within a year or so, the public will be asked to weigh in on the environmental and economic costs and benefits of dismantling the platforms versus their help to the ocean ecology and marine life. For Scarborough and Love, having science in hand is critical.

“We want everyone to have the same facts as they go into the process so decisions can be made on a rational basis,” Love said.

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