At the second of two appearances by State Lands Commission staffers in as many days, the Goleta City Council was formally told of the plans so far to plug and abandon Platform Holly, Pier 421, and the Ellwood Onshore Facility, receiving a report heard at the Town Hall meeting the night before. Of great interest to many in western Goleta was the fate of the hydrogen sulfide monitors, because decommissioning the 32 wells — all given to the state in the bankruptcy of Venoco oil company in April 2017 — also means a bit of oil and gas production will take place.
Hydrogen sulfide is a frequent byproduct of oil production. When present, the skunky smell worries residents as the gas can kill at relatively small concentrations, and the human nose is rapidly desensitized. In 2009, during the construction of Mariposa Senior Living, the off-site hydrogen sulfide monitor next door to Ellwood School was removed with the approval of the county Air Pollution Control District (APCD). Venoco was instructed to replace it before resuming production after the 2015 Refugio oil spill shut down all operations — which Venoco has stated led to its bankruptcy.
The APCD had held a public meeting in March on the issue. To the assembled, said Barbara Massey, a longtime Goleta activist, staffers had promised to find a way to increase monitoring of emissions from the digging of agricultural wells in western Goleta, one of which had sickened many in October 2016. But they failed to mention that the off-site monitor set up at UCSB’s west campus might be scrapped, Massey chided, a fact she’d learned at the State Lands meeting on Monday. “There were 42 comments against removal of the monitor, and I turned in over 100 signatures on a petition,” Massey said. The county did suggest a mobile monitor, she added, which she in turn proposed submitting to State Lands as a cheaper alternative.
Mayor Paula Perotte did just that on Tuesday night, asking Jennifer Lucchesi, executive director for the State Lands Commission, if the state could help pay for a mobile H2S monitor, perhaps at the school, Fire Station 10, or the retirement home. “After all,” Perotte pressed, “our number 1 goal is public safety.”
Lucchesi agreed, stating she’d support modifying the Memorandum of Agreement for the monitor at UCSB to include a mobile monitor, as the UCSB off-site monitor will remain in place — at a cost of $250,000. State Lands attorney Seth Blackmon pointed out that the Ellwood facility itself is a giant monitor ringed by 14 individual monitors at its fence line. During the plug-and-abandon work, only one or two wells would be operated at a time, removing far less than the 4,000-8,000 barrels Venoco had pulled out daily. Once Holly and 421 are decommissioned, Blackmon reminded, hydrogen sulfide would cease to come from those sources.
The Ellwood Onshore Facility itself, however, is not on state land, Lucchesi confirmed in response to a question from Councilmember Stuart Kasdin. Her agency is reviewing — from the state’s viewpoint — whether to purchase the land, condemn it, or lease it from the Venoco estate before being able to remediate the site. The first two options would likely require lengthy litigation, she said.
A big win, Lucchesi told the council, was the agreement by ExxonMobil — the former operator of the lease — to undertake all the plugging and abandonment of the facilities, a cost expected to crest $348 million. It could have been a legal fight, she said, so avoiding that “is a huge achievement.”
Jeff Planck, assistant chief of mineral resources with State Lands, said boats would begin to arrive as early as Thursday to offload equipment to start fixing the deck at Platform Holly. A second phase of discussion with ExxonMobil would involve the seep tents in the Ellwood Field, he said, which collect natural gas and crude blurping from cracks in the sea floor. They are included in the abandonment work.
Platform Holly has been in operation since 1966. Blackmon observed that 72 legacy wells populate the Ellwood field and that work under the Coastal Hazards Program — or Senate Bill 44, sponsored by Santa Barbara State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson — will provide more data on pressure in the reserve for a better understanding of the dynamics that might affect those long-abandoned wells.