A Goodbye to the Oil Rigs?

Hudson Mayfield

Eight oil platforms stand like ancient monolithics just miles off our coast, predating many current Santa Barbara residents. Things are set to change however, with three of these local rigs, Habit, Hogan and Houchin, and eight of the nineteen total rigs within two dozen miles of Santa Barbara including Hidalgo, Harvest, Hermosa, Grace and Gall, set to be decommissioned in the next ten years.

This radical change will begin a process that is regarded as anything but easy, and will radically change the makeup of our coastline for years to come. 

Platforms Houchin, Hogan, and Habitat, the three rigs south of the four directly offshore, have already started the process of “well-plugging,” meaning that they will not be reactivated. The next step in the removal process however is much more expensive and time consuming. Two of these rigs, platform Harmony and Heritage, lie in over a thousand feet of water, making some of the deepest fully fixed platforms in the state. If even one of these platforms was laid sideways it would stretch the full distance of the Laguna Grass Field over two and a half times. 

In order to remove these huge rigs, and the smaller ones like platforms A, B and C, huge expenses must be undergone. Not only will specialized equipment like a two hundred and forty  million dollar heavy lift ship have to be brought in from the oil fields on the Gulf Coast, but hundred of specialized works and their own equipment will have to be used to remove the rigs themself as well as the thousands of tons of metal which stretch down to the ocean floor. 

The question of who will be footing this roughly one billion six hundred million dollar bill remains a very pressing question. This issue is made more complicated by the fact that there is no one singular owner and operator of the oil rigs off our coast. Chevron owns platforms Grace and Gail. Holly, the most inshore rig, was owned by Venoco until the company went belly up and liquidated in 2017 due to poor management. With this the lease was passed to the rig’s previous owner ExxonMobil, who balked at the idea of paying three hundred million dollars to remove the decrepit platform. ExxonMobil holds the lease for three additional platforms, Heritage, Harmony, and Hondo.  The four platforms directly offshore of Santa Barbara, Hillhouse, A, B and C are owned and operated by DCOR, a local oil and natural gas company based out of Oxnard.  DCOR also runs the ships which service and resupply the rigs.  These red ships are based out of Ventura but occasionally operate out of our harbor in Santa Barbara. 

There are a number of steps and methods necessary for the decommissioning process to move forward, mainly regarding local, state and federal environmental laws and regulations. Furthermore there are a number of questions regarding the most effective way to remove the platforms themself. Some groups claim that a total removal of the platforms and their supports would be unnecessarily damaging to the complex and vibrant ecosystems which have grown around the pilings which support the rigs over the last five to six decades. In the eyes of many the best option for the local sea life is the removal of the platforms and the top eighty feet of pilings. Other environments disagree with this however and demand the complete removal of the platforms. Additionally the various oil companies are wary of the repercussions of leaving the pillings intact, particularly in terms of liability and safety. 

In the end the wheels of removal have begun to turn, and they are unlikely to stop considering the nationwide move to clean energy and local environmental laws. The time it will take to remove the rigs is still subject to change however and several platforms, mainly the ones owned by DCOR, are unlikely to be removed as long as they remain profitable. 

Regardless of their future, these platforms will leave a legacy, both economically and culturally, on Santa Barbara and the area around it; whether it was the huge 1969 blowout and resulting spill on Platform A which would lead to the founding of Earth Day or the immense wealth that big oil has brought to Santa Barbara and Ventura counties over the past fifty years.