Off the Santa Barbara Coast is an oil platform locals know well: Platform Holly. The towering metal giant, which shares the seafloor with six other nearby oil platforms, sits on the ocean as a remnant of Santa Barbara’s once-booming oil fields.
Now, the platform hides an underwater oasis of sea life. Marine researchers have discovered thriving oceanic communities on the platform, which has led to divisive discussions on how to decommission and remove it.
But decommissioning talks have begun anew. In late August, the City of Goleta held a virtual town hall with the California State Lands Commission to discuss permanently shutting down Platform Holly with well plugging and abandonment work.
The platform was originally planned to be decommissioned in 2020. That was right after Venoco, the oil company that owned Platform Holly, filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and turned it over to the California State Lands Commission.
Despite the stalled process, local, state and federal agencies “are making steady progress on plugging and abandoning these facilities,” Kyle Richards, the mayor pro tempore, said during the virtual town hall.
The California State Lands Commission, which is responsible for managing and protecting natural and cultural resources, continues to plug Platform Holly’s well bores with coil tubing and cement, according to Jeffrey Planck, the technical lead for the project.
Since their last town hall back in November 2019, the commission was able to cement 14 of these wells. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Planck said the commission, along with ExxonMobil, was forced to suspend operations before they could finish the last three wells in mid-March.
Furthermore, in June, the commission and ExxonMobil made the decision to “cold stack” Platform Holly — meaning all equipment in the operation was removed, secured or preserved to prevent the degradation of marine life, according to Planck. The “cold-stacking” was completed by the end of July and all ExxonMobil and contract personnel have left the site, Planck said in the meeting.
The operation to plug and abandon the wells takes substantial manpower and the large number of workers on the relatively small platform and crew boats to transport workers to Platform Holly violate social-distancing practices, Planck said.
“Generally, the number of people needed to operate is 30 to 40 personnel on Platform Holly at any given time,” Planck said. “There was a lack of space available to keep social-distancing requirements on the boats and the platform.”
There is no planned date to resume decommissioning operations, but the commission and ExxonMobil will continue to assess the pandemic to determine when safe operations can resume, according to Planck.