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 1 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.