Beauty and Menace Seen in Old Oil Rigs – Courthouse News Service

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

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

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

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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