California State Lands Commission staffers presented updates Monday on the soon-to-be-decommissioned Ellwood oil fields off Goleta’s coast. Venoco filed for bankruptcy just over a year ago, and the commission is chipping away at closing facilities the oil company once operated — the Ellwood Onshore Facility petroleum processing plant, two oil wells at Ellwood Beach Piers 421, and 30 oil wells at Platform Holly. One audience member fired off an audible expletive when Seth Blackmon, an agency lawyer, shared ExxonMobil’s upward estimate for abandoning the facilities: $348 million. As a former operator there, ExxonMobil agreed to close the 32 wells itself and fund much of that work, though the exact figure remains unknown. Another $22 million will come from a Venoco bond. California’s most recent budget also puts as much as $58 million toward closing these wells.
Environmental groups held a rally opposing offshore drilling before the meeting, and though they were excited to see less drilling on the Santa Barbara coast, they were frustrated at the cost of abandoning the facilities. Goleta City Councilmember Kyle Richards didn’t think Venoco’s $22 million contribution to the project was fair: “Unfortunately, that’s a drop in the oil barrel,” he said. The costs aren’t just a matter of closing the old wells — because Venoco stopped operating Platform Holly in 2015 after the Refugio Oil Spill, there’s outstanding maintenance to be done. “Things that sit out in the ocean tend to rot,” said Jeff Planck, technical lead for the project. After improving beach roads for service equipment, the two wells at Piers 421 are slated to be filled with concrete by the end of 2018. Refurbishing Platform Holly’s rig will take longer; the commission hopes to start shutting down those wells in early 2019. Since wells contain naturally pressurized oil, they’ll also have to be bled out before being cemented over. It’s not clear how long that will take. In the past, releasing the pressure of a single well has taken anywhere from 24 hours to 10 months.
Clarification: Regarding the $348 million price tag for this project, State Lands Commission estimates that equipment maintenance and abandoning the 32 oil wells will cost $200 million. Dismantling and decommissioning the structures accounts for the remaining $148 million in expected costs.