The red flags arrived early.
Selling offshore leases for oil drilling in the middle of the shipping lanes seemed unwise. The construction of an oil rig complex just off the coast of Orange County was an invitation to disaster.
But the green light was given, and in the late 1970s, Shell Oil Co. proceeded, eventually erecting three towering buildings in the middle of a nautical highway leading to two of the world’s busiest ports.
Maritime authorities have tried to stop construction of the platforms, according to documents reviewed by The Times. They warned of a possible disaster if a ship collided with one of them and ignited the oil and hydrocarbons flowing through a circuit of wells and pipes.
The Chairman of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn. called Shell Oil Co.’s plan “an unacceptable danger to navigation”.
“They want to put these platforms under the porch of the busiest port in the West,” Philip Steinberg said in a public hearing. “We would end up with a real minefield of obstacles. It invites disaster. … It only takes one platform to cause a catastrophic problem.
Forty years later, that minefield has come under scrutiny again as investigators explore the possibility that an anchor strike led to the oil spill that plagued the County of Orange.
Even though shipping lanes were relocated in 2000 to about a mile west of the platforms, unprecedented congestion at the port pushed vessel traffic close to the platforms’ elaborate infrastructure, both above and under the ocean.
Dozens of ships awaiting docking are anchored near platforms and their underwater oil lines, as well as sewage treatment pipes and communications equipment. Urgent concerns over equipment set-up are now a reality as crews continue to scour tar balls and oil from the beaches and marine reserves from Huntington Beach to Dana Point.
Shell Oil Co. attempted to respond to the first complaints. The company paid $ 71 million for the drilling rights and, with a consortium of business partners, was eager to start production. Early estimates promised a return of 25,000 barrels of oil per day for at least 20 years.
But the Beta unit, as their site was called, was located in what is known as the Zone of Separation: the central separation of the north and south lanes for container ships and tankers entering and exiting Los Angeles ports. and Long Beach.
“Aids to navigation will be installed and maintained in accordance with Coast Guard requirements,” the company wrote in its 1978 development plan, adding that “the structures will have the beneficial effect of acting as aids to navigation.” .
But the Coast Guard disagreed. She joined the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn. raising objections, saying he would prefer no platforms to be built in the region. “But we recognize that this is not realistic in the national interest,” said Rear Admiral Robert L. Price.
The national interest at the time was an economic interest. The development of the Beta unit came as the United States was keenly aware of its vulnerability due to its dependence on imported oil. In October 1973, a cartel composed mainly of oil exporters from the Middle East imposed an embargo on countries that allegedly supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Inflation skyrocketed and a two-year global recession set in, prompting the Home Office in 1974 to open up the southern coast of California – from Point Mugu to Dana Point – offshore oil operations.
The news, occurring five years after an oil rig erupted in the Santa Barbara Canal tarred the coast with at least 2 million gallons of crude, surprised even oil executives for its vast reach. About 7.7 million acres with an estimated production value of at least 5.5 billion barrels were for lease.
As one writer noted at the time, “Many argue that the environmental movement of recent years started on the oil-soaked beaches of Santa Barbara. Many claim that he died with the birth of the energy crisis.
Protests followed (letters sent to President Ford, a rally in Laguna Beach that drew 200 people) and Orange County became the main plaintiff in a lawsuit that included Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach calling for the stopping the sale of leases.
But the sale, which took place at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles, took place on December 11, 1975. (The opening offer on land south of Santa Rosa Island was submitted by California Citizens for Political Action, which protest handed officials at the Bureau of Land Management $ 1,800 in coins and $ 1 bills.)
A similar outrage was sparked two years later when the Home Office announced a second sale of nearly 1.1 million acres offshore. By the time these bids were opened in 1979, Shell Oil Co. had started manufacturing the base frame for its rigs in the Beta unit, which arrived at Long Beach at the end of the year by barge in from Malaysia.
Shell Oil Co.’s plan for the Beta unit was ambitious. Executives would later describe the facility as “the largest and most sophisticated offshore drilling operation ever built.”
The Ellen rig was designed as a drilling rig, tasked with extracting oil from the first five wells that drew from the oil reservoir, straddling the Palo Verde and Newport-Inglewood seismic faults. The Elly platform was the production platform. The two facilities would be linked by a 200-foot bridge.
Finally, a third rig, Eureka, was added, giving operators the ability to drill 480 wells.
An 18-mile pipeline would bring the oil to Shell Oil Co.’s terminal in Long Beach, a preferred route over alternative landings at Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. According to the 1978 production plan, the pipeline was to be designed to withstand the movement of ocean currents in the worst-case scenario, a 100-year storm.
“Stability will be achieved by proper design of the weight of the submerged pipeline,” the document said. The pipeline would also be designed to withstand “earthquakes and other dynamic effects, dead loads and surges”.
The only part of the pipeline to be buried was inside the Long Beach breakwater.
In January 1981, the complex began production and in the first month delivered 700 barrels of crude oil per day. By this time, the United States had gone through a second energy crisis, sparked by a drop in oil production following the Iranian revolution of 1979, and in Washington, DC, the Reagan administration began to lift the restrictions on the development of oil and gas in the country.
When Platform Eureka went live in 1985, The Times paid a visit. “Because the operation is so quiet,” the reporter observed, “Eureka looks more like a research vessel at anchor than an oil production facility.”
“Unlike the dirty platforms and pumps of old vintages, Eureka is so clean that many workers get their hands dirty only when looking for extra food in the well-stocked cafeteria.”
By 1999, however, the luster of this once “state of the art” resort had faded. Two oil leaks, first in the late spring and then in the fall, were detected from a corroded pipeline that carried oil, water and gas from the Eureka platform to Elly . Over 2,000 gallons of oil spilled into the ocean, reaching south to Crystal Cove.
The beta unit was now owned by Aera Energy, a Bakersfield-based oil and gas company, co-owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell Oil Co., and the spill shut down the pipeline from Eureka to Elly for almost 10 years. Aera was fined $ 48,000 for miscalculating her leak detection system.
A year after the spill, the Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation responded to a 20-year concern about the location of the three platforms and moved the shipping lanes that had sandwiched them west. An announcement in the Federal Register said the change “will reduce the risk of collisions and groundings, especially for deepest draft vessels, which require significant leeway.”
“In addition, oil rigs will no longer be in the… zone of separation, which will increase the safety of platforms and vessels in transit. “
Twenty years earlier, Shell Oil Co. officials had praised the beta unit’s remoteness as they argued for the construction of their oil rigs.
“We expect people on the beach to look like dots on the horizon,” the Shell Oil Co spokesperson said.
Today, with the fate of the beta unit in play, those dots on the horizon – and the line connecting them to the shore – are more visible than ever to those working on the beach, cleaning up the most spill. recent.
Times writer Ian James contributed to this report.