Column One: A historic oil platform off Santa Barbara turns into a rusty ghost ship
The morning swell off the Santa Barbara coast is running high as the crew boat churns away from the pier west of Haskell’s Beach toward Platform Holly.
Nearly a dozen lawyers and engineers, dressed in fire-retardant coveralls, hard hats and fat, orange life jackets, crowd the aft deck. Almost two years ago, Holly — one of 27 oil platforms along the California coast from Huntington Beach to Point Arguello — became property of the state after its owner, Venoco, filed for bankruptcy.
The future of the platform is in question, but all drilling has ceased and the wells will be sealed. The work, estimated to cost around $350 million, is expected to be completed no sooner than 2021.
Out on the water, the air is cool. Fog drifts up against the Santa Ynez Mountains, and filtered sunlight sparkles off the ocean. The Channel Islands begin to emerge from the haze.
Holly joins six other oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel scheduled to be permanently shut down and possibly removed, the result of aging oil fields and a changing political and economic environment that once supported the highest concentration of platforms in the state.
For nearly five decades, these ungainly structures have earned a nearly iconic, inescapable status in the California landscape. Legend has it that Holly, seen at night from the beach at Isla Vista, inspired Doors singer Jim Morrison to write “The Crystal Ship,” and drivers following the coast from Gaviota to La Conchita might understand why.
At twilight, the platforms brighten the horizon with their lights. They seem mysterious, even pretty, but up close, the hulking forms and the clatter of machinery illuminate harder truths.
As California pushes ahead in the fight against climate change, drilling seems an anachronism, a throwback to when oil fields — like the rivers and forests — were there for the taking and the coast bristled with derricks. Building a platform offshore seemed a brave endeavor.
That romance came to an abrupt end not long after it began. On Jan. 28, 1969, workers lost control of a well they were drilling on a platform 17 miles east of Holly, and 80,000 barrels of oil poured into the ocean, inspiring the state, then Congress, to take steps to stop the development of new platforms in local and federal waters.
Fifty years later, memories of that spill still ache, and the platforms offshore gleam even less, models of dirty technology and of an archaic dependency on fossil fuels. Holly’s decommissioning is celebrated by environmentalists, activists and residents of the Santa Barbara coast. Just two miles offshore, the platform is a conspicuous reminder of the threat drilling poses to this treasured shoreline.
Today the Trump administration wants to reopen the coast to exploration and drilling, and the state is fighting back. In September, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation banning construction of new pipelines and piers connecting federal waters to state land.
As the crew boat approaches Holly, the visitors crane their necks toward the spindly superstructure overhead.
After three years of dormancy, the platform is a rusty ghost ship. Corrosion cakes switches and pressure gauges, their needles long parked at zero. The drone of air compressors echoes from inside, where a skeleton crew keeps the most basic systems operational.
For almost 50 years, environmental politics has been the backdrop for the hundreds of workers who climb aboard these platforms every day, and the loss of Holly is a stinging reminder of the state’s conflicted relationship with this crucial resource.
Grasping a rope swing, Holly’s visitors Tarzan themselves from the crew boat to the platform’s lowest deck.
They clatter up flights of stairs, past lounging sea lions and cormorants, to the production deck, where they are met by Mike McManigal, operations supervisor for Beacon West, the company contracted by the state to manage the facility.
McManigal, 50, started on Holly in 2001 and hopes to follow the job to its end. His office is in the control room, a museum of digital and analog technology going back to the 1960s.
The lawyers pile their life jackets in a corner. They’re on a reporting junket for their client, the State Lands Commission, which took over after Venoco left. The more they know about Holly, the better their representation in court if anything gets prickly in the months ahead.
McManigal demonstrates the platform’s alarms, a different signal for every emergency: man overboard, fire, abandon platform and hydrogen sulfide. Outside the control room, a dozen yellow bags with stenciled lettering — “breath apparatus” — line the railing.
Holly’s 30 wells drop more than 200 feet before piercing the seafloor and spidering out nearly 10,000 feet to the west, east and north. At a depth of 3,500 feet, they hit the residues from the Miocene Epoch, which, once tapped, flow like champagne.
The wealth of these deposits is evident from the northwest corner of the platform, where the ocean is veneered with a rainbow sheen of oil. Tiny bubbles dot the surface, clicking as they pop, releasing natural gas, its smell slightly sweeter than rotten eggs.
Platform Holly sits on top of one of the world’s largest fields that naturally seeps oil and gas. So much gas escapes that in the 1980s Holly’s operators submerged two enormous steel tents, 100 feet by 200 feet, over a fissure about a mile away from the platform. The tents collected the gas and piped it to shore.
Platform workers say the oil and gas seepage got worse when production stopped in 2015.
Dave Bautista, who retired as operations supervisor last April, describes seeing white clouds 40 to 50 feet in diameter rise up from the depths. When they broke the surface, the ocean boiled with gas, and oil spread out in a thick, iridescent sheet. These eruptions, he says, could last up to three minutes.
Before then, “the amount of oil and gas was minimal,” he says.
Research has yet to prove that a decrease in oil production leads to an increase in oil seepage, says David Valentine, professor of Earth sciences and biology at UC Santa Barbara.
But, Valentine adds, studies have shown that long-term gas production can diminish the amount of gas that enters the atmosphere, and the seeps in the vicinity of Holly are a major source of air pollution in Santa Barbara County.
For Bautista, who grew up in Oxnard scraping beach tar off the soles of his feet, the problem of the seeps raises a basic question. What’s worse: beaches spotted with oil or platforms out at sea?
The visitors wander through the production deck and enter the well bay, following a narrow path that skirts a dense forest of metal casings, gate valves, manifolds and pipes.
On land, drilling, pumping and refining operations can take up hundreds of acres, but Holly occupies less than an acre. Its 30 wells crowd a space half the width and twice the length of a tennis court.
Built in Louisiana, Platform Holly was towed to California through a partnership between Arco and Mobil. It cost $4 million and was positioned in 1966. At the time, it was one of the deepest rigs in the world.
Holly’s first well began producing in January 1967, and the future seemed bright. But two years later, a blowout on Platform A changed California’s relationship to offshore drilling forever.
The oil, wrote novelist Ross MacDonald, “lay on the blue water in a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long. An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood.”
Bautista’s first offshore job was on that platform in 1976. He recalls walking up to the well that blew — A-21 — and laying his hands on it. “It was pretty famous,” he says.
He was 18, the envy of his high school buddies, making $5.48 an hour, dangling in a spider basket 35 feet above the water, painting and repainting the platform. In the years that followed, he earned enough to buy a house and raise eight children on a single income.
Bautista started working on Holly in 1998. The platform had just been purchased from Mobil for $15 million by Tim Marquez, co-founder of Venoco and a young oil executive with an eye for underperforming properties.
A year and a half later, Marquez bought two other platforms — Grace and Gail — from Chevron. Located in federal waters, their decommissioning — also due to Venoco’s bankruptcy — is overseen by an agency within the Department of the Interior.
At their peak, Venoco’s three offshore platforms produced 10,000 barrels a day, generating $25 million a month — enough to support 440 employees, lavish Christmas parties and Rolexes for veteran personnel.
In 2013 and 2014, the company was the leading taxpayer in Santa Barbara County, paying $7.3 million in property taxes one year on assets of $706 million. Marquez said the company also donated more than $150 million to hospitals and scholarship funds.
On May 19, 2015, it came to an end.
“We had just received an attaboy,” Bautista says. One of the company’s executives for production and safety had come aboard to praise the crew.
The company had weathered complaints — a lawsuit by Erin Brockovich, a controversy over fracking, a no-vote on a shoreline rig — but believing the company undervalued, Marquez went private. He was negotiating with the state for an extension of the existing lease to a reserve a mile east that would keep Holly’s operations going for at least another 20 years.
Then the phone rang.
“Something is happening up the coast,” said the onshore supervisor.
A pipeline, north of U.S. 101 by Refugio State Beach, had cracked open. Nearly 140,000 barrels of oil had poured from the rupture, and Venoco lost access to its market. Production was cut back, and within 24 hours, everything was shut down. The company tried to stay in business, but maintaining its platforms and field operations cost $1 million a month.
(In November, the energy company Freeport-McMoRan decided to relinquish the leases to its three platforms off Point Conception, Hidalgo, Harvest and Hermosa, which were also dependent on the pipeline. These platforms will be decommissioned.)
“We were dead in the water,” Bautista says, “waiting for the party to start, but the party was canceled.”
On April 17, 2017, Venoco handed the keys to its offshore operation for Holly over to the State Lands Commission, a process that placed the site in the surrounding marine sanctuary.
The state hired Beacon West, which included former employees of Venoco, to maintain Holly and began negotiating the cost of decommissioning with Exxon Mobil Corp., the developer of the wells.
In September, a jury found Plains All American Pipeline guilty of multiple charges related to the spill.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Marquez says. “We did nothing wrong. I lost my company because of their negligence.”
Toward the end of their tour, the visitors ascend to the drill deck. The derrick, 160 feet high, towers over them.
From this abandoned station, roughnecks muscled the hydraulics needed to position the drill rig over each well and threaded 30-foot lengths of pipe, creating long strands that augered into the Earth.
They worked 12-hour shifts, seven days on, seven days off. During breaks they hung on the railing, 40 feet above the water, watching whales breach, the sun rise and fall, never imagining that it would come to an end.
“There was no way they would shut down this platform,” Bautista says. “There was too much oil out there, and our platform had such a good record.”
The work on Holly today veers toward obsolescence. Once the wells have been examined, they will be injected with cement and sealed, a process scheduled to begin in late summer. By then, the fate of the platform will be in play.
Four options are being considered, says Jeff Planck of the State Lands Commission: sever the platform at the seafloor and remove it entirely, convert the platform into a marine biology laboratory, reconfigure the platform for alternative energy production, or remove half of the platform and create an artificial reef for the marine life drawn to the protection of the platform.
Biologists estimated up to 45 species of fish — rockfish, lingcod, perch — live in its vicinity, while the legs of the structure support innumerable arthropods, such as barnacles, crabs and tiny crustaceans.
“If you totally remove a platform, you kill not just the fish but hundreds of millions of invertebrates,” says Milton Love, research biologist with the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara. “And I think it is immoral killing large number of animals like that.”
Love endorses creating an artificial reef, but that’s his position as a citizen. As a scientist, he is neutral.
“There are people who make no bones about it: Anything artificial in the ocean is bad,” he says. “They want the platforms removed. That is not a biological perspective. It is a philosophical perspective that society needs to debate.”
By noon, the tour is over. The crew boat plies the water back to the pier.
Given the revenues and the resources lying under Holly, old-timers and industry watchers wonder if decommissioning the platform had more to do with politics than common sense. Bautista recalls how the city of Goleta had little sympathy over the loss of Venoco. Residents, he says, complained about the foghorn and the burn-off flare.
When operations ceased, he says, “it was like we could hear the champagne corks popping in City Hall.”
“Did it have to come to this?” asks Jim Youngson with Terrain Consulting, a public affairs company that represented Venoco. He paints a scenario in which Holly would stay operational, empty the oil field and cover the cost of decommissioning.
“Now the taxpayers are on the hook to take this down,” he says.
Pending an agreement with Exxon Mobil, the state set aside $58 million of the estimated $348 million to decommission Holly.
Back on land, the lawyers and engineers strip off life jackets and coveralls and return their hard hats.
A loud pop-pop-pop breaks the quiet of the afternoon. Conversations stop. Heads turn skyward.
A SpaceX rocket, launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, just hit Mach 1, sending into orbit a NASA satellite designed to study the Earth’s changing climate.
The view from Sacramento
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