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As oil platform Holly is decommissioned what happens to the ecosystems on the underwater structure

Oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet consisting of tens of millions of sponges, corals, crabs, mussels, worms and fish all living on what are essentially platform reefs.
Scott Gietler
Oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet consisting of tens of millions of sponges, corals, crabs, mussels, worms and fish all living on what are essentially platform reefs.

Some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet can be found on the underwater structures of oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. Could Platform Holly be completely dismantled or turned into the first platform reef off of California?

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

There are 27 oil platforms off the coast of California. Some are active and others are inactive and in the long process of being decommissioned.

Some are in very deep federal waters, as deep as the empire state building is high, and others are in more shallow state waters – just like Platform Holly.

You can see Platform Holly from Haskell’s Beach in the City of Goleta – just north of Santa Barbara. Holly is only two miles offshore and at 211 feet deep is on the shallower side for a platform.

Located only two miles offshore from the City of Goleta, at 211 feet deep Platform Holly is on the shallower side for an oil platform.
Erin Feinblatt
Located only two miles offshore from the City of Goleta, at 211 feet deep Platform Holly is on the shallower side for an oil platform.

To find out more about Platform Holly I traveled to the Ellwood onshore oil facility in Goleta.

Joe Fabel took me on a tour of the plant. He’s a senior attorney with the California State Lands Commission and deals with major decommissioning projects.

“It was built in about the early 1970s to process oil and gas off platform Holly, and continued to do so up until about 2015 with the Refugio oil spill,” said Fabel.

The Refugio oil spill saw over 140,000 gallons of oil leak from a pipeline. That pipeline was a major connector for oil producers, including Platform Holly.

The platform stopped producing oil in 2015 because of the spill – the pipeline that leaked remains out of commission to this day. But this onshore plant still provides power to the platform as decommissioning happens.

Oil and gas was processed off Platform Holly until the Refugio Oil spill in 2015. The Refugio oil spill saw over 140,000 gallons of oil leak from a pipeline. That pipeline was a major connector for oil producers, including Platform Holly.

As we tour the onshore plant the sounds from pumps, tanks and equipment buzz and hiss in the background. Normally private companies run oil platforms and are responsible for decommissioning. Fabel told me why the state is involved with Platform Holly and no other platforms.

“Because the former oil operator fell into bankruptcy, surrendered its leases, became insolvent,” said Fabel. “Now the state of California through the State Lands Commission and other agencies have been forced to go out there and handle this problem of how to decommission this thing.”

Because of this, Fabel has become well acquainted with Platform Holly and it’s decommissioning. Something he told me is new for the state.

“This is absolutely unique. Up until 2017, the state has never actively participated in decommissioning an offshore oil platform,” said Fabel. “It's really turned this agency and made the state an operator of an oil and gas operations facility… you know, a place that arguably the state should not be in. But we're forced to be here nonetheless.”

So, they’re deep into the process of decommissioning: Holly’s underground oil and gas wells have been blocked and special seabed plugs have been installed.

The actual process of decommissioning of this one oil platform consists of 150 individual projects, I’m told. And the state is paying for all of it.

Thriving ecosystems on oil platforms’ underwater structures

Ok, so… so far it sounds pretty straight forward, right. The platform is slowly being taken apart. But here’s where the twist in this tale reveals itself…

Holly’s underwater structure is covered in sea life and teeming with fish.

“This is an oil platform. This was never designed to be a reef,” said Fabel. “This was designed as a structure to commercially extract oil and gas resources from state lands, to provide… pay a royalty and to generate profits. It was never designed to become this underwater habitat so to speak.”

Fabel says it wouldn’t be cliche to call it an underwater oasis.

Traditionally the plan for decommissioning a platform is to return the area to the way it was before the platform was there – basically like it never existed.

So, what happens when you bring a thriving underwater ecosystem into the equation?

What are the options?

Fabel has received a variety of ideas from the local community – like turning Holly into a lighthouse or an art exhibit or even a wind turbine.

But there are only a few options being seriously considered.

“I’d say three or so categories: full removal, partial removal down to 85 feet, partial removal with some form of reefing where you maybe put the top sides, lay it down and iterations within that,” said Fabel.

Options for decommissioning an oil platform

Let’s break those options down a bit more.

Full removal of the platform including the jacket or legs down to the ocean floor would mean all the attached sea life would likely die and fish not killed in the process would lose their artificial reef. But it would be like Platform Holly was never there.

With partial removal down to 85 feet – that depth because that’s what the coast guard deems acceptable for safe ship navigation – there are two options: the sawed off top part would either be towed away and disposed of with all the attached marine life; or it could be placed on the ocean floor and continue to be artificial reef – but now no ships will bump into it – remember Holly is in quite shallow water and close to the beach.

And a special note here… there are no artificial former oil platform reefs in California currently so this would be pretty historic.

But with anything left out there in the ocean, comes responsibility and liability. The structure would also have to be stabilized and maintained.

“Without fairly expensive measures, this thing could collapse in 50 to 100 years,” said Fabel. “The marine environment eats and corrodes metal and steel, plus the weight of all the biological matter and mass on it certainly can affect the structure as well.”

Fabel says decision makers, the commission, have the present situation and the future to consider.

“Making sure that regardless of what decision is made, that it doesn't create problems in 40 or 50 years,” said Fabel. “Whether it be from a cost perspective – now somehow the state has to manage costs that were unforeseen at a certain point or the legal risk, liability and potential harm to the environment and public.”

The state isn’t the only entity out in the ocean off of California involved in making these kinds of tricky decisions right now. The federal government is currently scheduled to decommission eight of the 23 platforms on the outer continental shelf – the platforms further out to sea not in state waters.

Some of these platforms are being decommissioned due to the financial insolvency of its operators; others as a business decision – don’t forget the major connector pipeline that leaked in the Refugio Oil spill remains out of commission today.

“And what the federal government's doing is, really it’s on an incredible scale: eight platforms. As of this point, no platforms have been removed from the Outer Continental Shelf. The original Platform A which caused the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, is still out there,” said Fabel. “This is unique even though the federal government has a lot of experience in decommissioning platforms out in the Gulf of Mexico and other locations, this is certainly a brand new process out there. So I think we're all going through this and trying to learn through the process.”

The state will be looking to get ideas from the federal government on what works and what doesn’t.

And, it also makes sense to line up all these decommissionings together - economies of scale.

“You may need a vessel that is based out of China and booked for the next four years and cost $40 million to mobilize to bring it over,” said Fabel.

When it comes to what decision they actually make for Platform Holly, Fabel really emphasized a lot during my conversation with him, that they want public input. Transparency is key.

And this is somewhat unique for an oil platform. Because in this case a private oil company isn’t responsible for decommissioning, and rather the state is doing it – they are going beyond having a public comment period and issuing an environmental report. This time they’re actually asking the public what they want… you know the residents of California – the constituents.

The state has already held eight town halls in Goleta, there’s one coming up on June 7, and there will be more.

The varying opinions on what should happen to the platform reefs

Varying opinions on this issue are plentiful! Next I’ll introduce you to three people with expertise and thoughts on turning rigs into reefs.

On the western side of the UC Santa Barbara Campus is the Love Lab run by Milton Love – a research biologist at the university.

Fish themed art decorates the walls, books about marine ecology fill shelves and if it’s not already obvious that this professor loves fish, he’s wearing a jacket featuring two kissing rockfish.

Love has studied many oil platforms.

“And I'm going to try to find a dive for Holly so that you can get a sense of what it looks like underwater and the kind of surveys we did,” he said as he searched through his records and logs for a recording.

When you see these ecosystems in photographs or in videos it’s pretty mind blowing (mine was) – every square inch is covered in colorful sea life of some sort.

“If you look at it strictly from a biological standpoint, these platforms are incredibly productive, thriving assemblages of organisms,” said Love.

At the top of these artificial reefs in the intertidal zone you have millions of mussels, sea anemones, sea stars, crabs and shallow water fish living there.

As you go further down you get more fish like rockfish.

As you reach the bottom there’s sponges, corals and larger fish hiding in the crevices of the platform’s cross beams.

And on the muddy sea floor you can find thousands of mussels shells forming a shell mound.

Donna Schroeder
A sea star and rockfish on the mussel shell mounds at the bottom of an oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel. 

Love says most platforms act as nursery grounds.

“A typical platform in a typical year will have anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of these young fishes. And generally there tend to be higher densities of these fishes, these young fishes at platforms than at nearby natural reefs,” said Love.

He says there’s evidence that many of these platforms actually increase the number of fish in Southern California.

“Not just around the platform, but well away from the platform. So you have all these baby rockfish and they live there maybe for a year and then they swim away and in many cases they populate natural reefs. So if you remove a platform, for instance, you've lost all that nursery function,” said Love.

Love has heard all the options currently being discussed for Holly’s decommissioning.

When I asked him what they should do with Platform Holly and others like it, he shared his thoughts based on the decades of research he’s done.

“If you maintain part of the platform, then you maintain it as a reef, and if you cut it 85 feet below the surface, you've actually maintained most of the nursery function also. So you may lose a bit, but it won't be a wholesale loss,” said Love.

And complete removal?

“You will go back to a natural habitat, which was mud,” said Love. “So from the point of view of reef animals, well, that's not good because you no longer have a reef. On the other hand, from the point of view of the mud animals, happy days are here again.”

But Love also has his own personal opinion.

“My own view is that. I think it's immoral to kill large numbers of animals because they happen to settle on a piece of steel instead of a rock. Basically, that's capital punishment for a bad career move, and I just can't countenance that,” said Love.

What do those working with oil companies have to say

The oil companies and those that work with them also have thoughts on what should happen to the platforms. Amber Sparks is the co-founder of Blue Latitudes – they advocate for these reefs.

“I'm a marine scientist that works with offshore oil and gas companies to help them repurpose their offshore oil and gas platforms into permanent artificial reefs,” said Sparks.

Amber Sparks is a marine scientist who has dived on many of California’s oil platforms. She works with oil platforms to turn rigs into reefs.
Kyle McBurnie
Amber Sparks is a marine scientist who has dived on many of California’s oil platforms. She works with oil platforms to turn rigs into reefs. 

Sparks believes that the future of ocean conservation can no longer be an us against them mentality – you know the scientists against the oil companies.

“We need to find opportunities to reach across the aisle and work together,” said Sparks. “Because the reality is that we're using our oceans and we will continue to use them, whether it's for energy production or food production.”

When Sparks and Blue Latitudes work with oil companies they realistically look at if a platform is a good candidate for reefing.

“Because not every oil platform is a good candidate to be reefed,” she said.

Platform Holly, for instance, may be too shallow, Sparks said.

And why are oil companies interested in the reefing option?

“They save costs because a portion of the structure remains in the water column. It doesn't have to be removed, and therefore, their decommissioning costs are reduced,” said Sparks.

California also has ‘rigs to reef’ laws, as they are known, where if money is saved by reefing, a portion goes back to the state for marine conservation.

“If 23 of our 27 platforms were to be reefed, there would be an estimated $1 billion in saved costs,” said Sparks “80% of that saved costs or $800 million would go back to the state into that Endowment for Marine Preservation and Conservation, which funds Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as state run conservation initiatives. So it's a pretty big incentive not only for the oil companies, but also for the state.”

If reefing proves not to be suitable for Holly. Sparks hopes it will be for other platforms.

“As global warming and climate change, near shore erosion, pollution, overfishing continue to degrade our natural reef ecosystems. I see a silver lining. A little bit of hope when I dive on these platforms and see successful reef ecosystems that are bountiful and full of life,” said Sparks.

But whatever decision is made Sparks and her company believes what happens with Holly will set an example. They say what the regulators ultimately decide to do with platform Holly will have implications for how they approach decommissioning California's other 26 platforms – will they permit them to be reefed or will they force total removal? Their decision could set a precedent for others.

Environmentalists have questions

So an environmental impact report will be written. The state selected a consultant in May to evaluate the options for decommissioning. That report should be available mid-2025.

But with that report’s release – skeptics await.

“We're just the kind of watchdogs on the other end to make sure that the report is as robust as it can be,” said Kristen Hislop.

Hislop was the Senior Director of the Marine Program at the Environmental Defense Center. I interviewed her before she moved on from the firm at the end of March.

The law firm was born out of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.

“There were images of our beaches covered in oil, animals covered in oil, people trying to clean up our beaches in the ocean,” said Hislop.

Hislop says they’ll be watching to see if the state environmental impact report is science based and has a lot of robust data sets involved. And that…

“The outcome of the ultimate decision making is in the best interests of the marine environment,” said Hislop.

I asked Hislop about the options already being discussed. She has questions.

“So one big question we have is should these platforms be transitioned into artificial reefs, will they be in marine protected areas and protected from fishing impacts, or will they be fished? And if they are, what does that mean for the ecosystems that surround that area?” asked Hislop.

And more questions…

“How long will they last upright in the position that they are now? Will they be towed and toppled to a place where we know they're going to have ultimate benefits to certain fish species?” Hislop said.

There’s also the question we’ve covered already of creating and even managing an artificial reef.

“So California doesn't have any current offshore oil and gas rigs that have been created as an artificial reef or moved into our reefing area. So how that's managed will be unique to California,” she said.

While artificial reefs are considered, Hislop does mention that the federal government has already said these platforms can’t be reused or converted in certain ways.

“I think that the biggest misconception that would be really great to clear up is that some people want to see these platforms reused for other purposes,” said Hislop.

Like for production of renewable energy or setting up a research center.

“And as we understand from industry and from now, the federal government's environmental report that recently came out, it's not feasible to reuse these. They're old. They're past their end of life. It's very expensive to maintain them,” said Hislop.

Ultimately Hislop says the EDC wants Holly to be looked at individually but that a lot can be learned from the federal government's approach to decommissioning.

The end of an era

Back at Haskell’s Beach in Goleta, Joe Fabel and I have taken a walk to the beach to get a view of Platform Holly. The county’s present and past history with oil is encapsulated here.

Joe Fabel, a senior attorney with the California State Lands Commission, stands above Haskell’s Beach in the City of Goleta. Platform Holly can be seen in the background.
Michelle Loxton
Joe Fabel, a senior attorney with the California State Lands Commission, stands above Haskell’s Beach in the City of Goleta. Platform Holly can be seen in the background.

Holly sits on one of the largest natural seeps in the world where up to a hundred barrels of oil bleeds out into the environment each day. This oil rich environment is why there used to be many oil piers extending out from the beach where people would drill oil wells in the surf.

But as you’ve learned that is all changing. We’re in a time of the removal of the last remnants of offshore oil production in Santa Barbara County.

“A lot of these are sort of monuments to technical engineering prowess to a degree. I mean, and there's some value in that, at least while they stood,” said Fabel. “But, I mean, the goal here, I think the goal of the commission, it’s staff and I believe the state of California is to make sure that, you know, when these are gone, they're done in the right way, in a thoughtful way, in a way that's protective for current Californians and future Californians.”

That decision, whatever it will be and the consequences that go with it, should be revealed in 2025.


If you're looking for The One Oh One® Design Collective visit:

Michelle oversees digital products at KCLU and is the host and creator of the station's first award-winning podcast The One Oh One. The podcast has won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, an RTNA 'Best Podcast' award and an LA Press Club award.