Quincy Lee
Science & Tech Editor

Platform Holly, the iconic structure off the coast of Goleta, will be the first oil rig off the coast of California to be decommissioned since the Carpinteria and Summerland rigs in 1996.

Venoco, the platform’s current operating company, filed chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. Resultantly, they “quitclaimed” their lease on Platform Holly and the surrounding Ellwood Oil Field, giving it back to the State Lands Commission, SLC.

Built above 211 feet of water two miles off the Goleta coast, Platform Holly lies within the SLC jurisdiction for controlling offshore drilling. Anything within three miles of shore falls under the Commission’s regulation.  

The closing of operations on this Platform marks the end of drilling in the state waters within Santa Barbara County. The other oil rigs that can be seen off the coast of Santa Barbara lie in federal waters, a range of three-to-ten miles offshore.

“This marks the end of an era of offshore oil production in this location,” said local state senator Hannah Beth Jackson in a press release.

Platform Holly’s decommission also coincides with Jackson’s bill, SB 188, that she pushed to discourage new oil development in state waters.

Built in 1966 by ARCO, Platform Holly was constructed in a time when renewable resources were not an affordable alternative. Due to several financial struggles in the industry, the oil rig changed ownership to Exxonmobil in 1993 and then again to Venoco in 1997.

In that time, the operating company created local jobs and generated money for the state, leading many people to support its continued development. Venoco cited that their “royalty payments” of $24 million in 2014 and $33 million in 2013 were put into the General Fund, used for education, corrections, public safety, and health and welfare safety net programs.

But after nearly half a century of drilling, oil seeps decreased and the rig is no longer profitable for Venoco to continue its operations. Now bankrupt, the company will turn over their property rights to Platform Holly and other operations off the Goleta Beach Oil Pier.

“This is significant,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. “It will eliminate the risk of oil spills in this very sensitive area and on popular public beaches.”

Platform Holly lies just outside the Coal Oil Point Marine Protected Area, set aside to protect the gray whales, snowy plovers, kelp forests, and pelicans that students such as Jenna Solberg see on their ‘bucket list’ paddle around the oil rig.   

Despite environmental advocacy for protecting these resources from fossil fuel development off the coast, the decommissioning of oil rigs is a precarious process. The proper method to remove a rig, or whether to move one at all, is under scrutiny by different groups.

“We have to look at the lesser of two evils here,” said Solberg, student advocate for Fossil Free UCSB. “If keeping the oil rig in the water is going to create less damaging effects, then so be it.”

When Chevron removed oil platforms from the Santa Barbara Channel in 1996, they used underwater explosives to remove the 80-foot tall, 7500-ton steel structures. While some reports show the debris can harm the local sea life, organizations such as Rigs-to-Reefs work to create new biotic ecosystems from the remains.

Because the decommissioning of oil rigs is a long process with the potential to impact the large coastal community in Santa Barbara County, Venoco is held to strict regulations when removing Platform Holly.

According to the report published by the SLC, “The Commission’s first priority is to ensure that the facilities are secured, safe and do not pose a risk to public health and safety and the environment.”

This priority extends beyond stopping future drilling. Much like a security deposit, the SLC is using Venoco’s Ellwood Oil Fields leasing bond, a total of $22 million, to ensure the thorough but careful extraction of the entire platform and oil extraction system.

Due to these high standards of removal, Platform Holly will not be disappearing from the horizon overnight. The current estimates are three years for it to be fully decommissioned, given that the available equipment complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

But in addition to the removal of the steel structure from the environment, there largely remains the notion of protecting the area from an oil leak. 32 wells of oil lie underneath Platform Holly, totaling 85.1 million barrels of oil, according to the SLC.

Venoco is responsible, under the terms of the leasing agreement, to make sure that this oil be efficiently capped so that it poses no threat to the thousands of potentially affected species. The SLC report cites these as, “obligations under the state leases, including the obligation to properly plug and abandon the 32 wells in the South Ellwood Field and decommissioning the facilities.”

Considering the volatile nature of proceeding, both the SLC and Venoco will be under strict scrutiny. “I will be closely following the decommissioning process as it moves forward,” said Jackson, “because this helps us move closer to a future that is cleaner, greener and less dependent on fossil fuels.”

Despite the executive order issued by the Trump Administration, Senator Jackson is attempting to move California away from the long history of oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. Platform Holly’s decommission is an example of this progress, but the oil industry’s history here is dug deeper than the 32 oil wells.

Oil extraction from Santa Barbara County began in the 1930s, when resources were needed for World War II and UCSB was a military base. Once onshore production peaked and technology was developed to extract from the sea, oil platforms came into play.

The geologic structure of the ocean between the mainland and the Channel Islands creates an optimal location for the development of oil rigs. Containing what are known as synclines and anticlines, or underwater hills and valleys, respectively, the ocean floor in the channel has oil in accessible locations. Oil platforms can be constructed in relatively shallow water and have access to thousands of barrels of oil.

Rapid expansion of oil drilling led to a peak production rate of 8.9 million barrels of oil per year in 1964, according to the Santa Barbara County Planning Division. An extensive pipeline system needed to be put into place in order to transport the oil and gas obtained from offshore rig.

Just for Platform Holly, four separate underwater pipelines were established: one to transport the crude oil, one to transport the natural gas, one to transport utilities, and one to transport the excess material seeping from the oil wells.

According to the plans published by the Santa Barbara Development and Energy Division, these pipelines, from Platform Holly to the Ellwood Oil & Gas Processing Facility, total a length of 12.5 miles and have a diameter of approximately six inches. These pipes are responsible for safely carrying the oil released by drilling out of harm’s way to the proper managing facilities adjacent to the Sandpiper Golf Course. Although the miles of pipes are buried under hundreds of cubic feet of water, the large white processing takes are clearly visible from UCSB’s West Campus.

Although Venoco, a Houston-based company, operates Platform Holly, Plains All American is responsible for the operational efficiency of these pipelines. On May 19th, 2015, one of these pipelines burst.

140,000 gallons of oil being transported from Platform Holly through this pipeline entered the ocean near Refugio beach. This event impacted both the UCSB community and the local ecosystems’ well-being.

Oil slicks on the surface of the water and tar-covered sand restricted public access to nearby beaches for two months for public safety concerns. In addition, over 200 birds and 50 marine mammals were killed as a result of an inhabitable environment.

The costs associated with cleaning up this oil spill totaled $96 million. A lawsuit ensued between Venoco and Plains All American to decide the organization responsible for the damages.

Although Plains All American employees were indicted on felony charges, Venoco’s financial struggle could never bounce back from the loss of revenue after the spill.

Oil spills have been the largest deterrent from the continued use of oil platforms. Increased observations of the side effects of offshore oil extraction have decreased the community’s approval of the rigs.

In regards to the removal of Platform Holly and the continued reduction of oil extraction in state waters, the LA Times wrote, “As President Trump voices his determination to expand oil drilling and 20th century energy policies, California is pioneering the sustainable alternative that protects our coastlines and environment while gaining a strong foothold in the future energy and global economy.”

A “Not In My Backyard” slogan has particularly taken over the Santa Barbara County’s stance on oil rigs and fossil fuel extraction within the county’s state-controlled waters. The decommissioning of this last platform in the area and its careful extraction represent the desires of popular opinion.

To gauge the public opinion of decommission, the SLC contacted various local and state agencies with regulatory jurisdiction over the area, including the State’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, and the City of Goleta.

Resultantly, the termination of the lease on Platform Holly between Venoco and the SLC contains specific clauses to insure the public approves of the decommissioning planning process.

In order to maintain the remaining assets of the Ellwood Oil Field the birds, dolphins, seals, and other beachgoers Venoco’s press release announced, “its lease agreement holds the company responsible for managing the safety and security of the assets throughout the decommissioning process.”

Overall, Platform Holly has been a landmark off the shore of UCSB for generations of students. Now, it will be taken away like the swift and careful nature of sea turtles following the ocean’s tide: slow and steady.

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