October 07, 2021

I woke Monday morning to the news that a major pipeline spill had occurred off the coast of southern California.  The pipeline failure occurred three miles (4.5 kilometers) off the coast of Orange County and involved a failure in a 17.5-mile (26.25 kilometer) pipeline connected to an offshore drilling facility called Elly that is operated by Beta Offshore.  It was not immediately clear what caused at least 126,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Pacific Ocean, creating a 13-square-mile (19.5 square kilometer) oil slick.  Dead fish and birds washed ashore as cleanup crews raced to try to contain the spill.  I am not sure why I was just hearing about the spill two days after it happened.  Perhaps like many others, football had taken precedence over environmental disasters on Sunday.

When I looked online, I found that offshore drilling is a process where a wellbore is drilled to extract petroleum which lies in rock formations beneath the seabed.  There are five main types of offshore drilling facilities.  A rig is an immovable structure of concrete and steel resting on the seabed.  Spars are drilling platforms affixed to giant hollow hulls that can descend over 812 feet (250 meters) and are secured by cables.  Jack ups are mobile platforms raised above the sea on extendable steel legs designed for depths of 1600 feet (500 meters) or less.  Semi-submersibles are usually built on floating pontoons with columns sunk into the water and anchored to the seabed and effectively support drill depths up to 5850 feet (1,800 meters).  A drill ship is a fully mobile drilling vessel for deep-water drilling that use sophisticated sensors, electronic components, and satellite tracking to keep them floating safely while lined up with the well.  Environmentalists claim all five types are accidents waiting to happen.

Offshore drilling presents environmental challenges (offshore and onshore) from the produced hydrocarbons and the materials used during the drilling operation.  This does not include the possibility of spills from the facility or an associated pipeline.  The US Coast Guard said that crews had “recovered” about 3,150 gallons of oil.  Fourteen boats were involved in the cleanup effort on Sunday, and crews had deployed 5,360 feet (1,787 meters) of boom (floating barrier) to contain the oil.  The spill prompted closure of the beaches in Huntington Beach, and cancelation of the third day of the annual Pacific Airshow where an estimated 1.5 million people had gathered on the oceanfront to watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds.  Huntington Beach mayor Kim Carr said on Sunday the spill was “one of the most devastating situations our community has dealt with in decades.”  The beaches in Huntington Beach are closed until further notice.

Thoughts:  Rather than a single borehole, the Elly site is a drilling complex with two producing platforms and a processing platform supporting about 70 wells.  All the platforms have now been shut down.  The oil slick appeared to infiltrate the Talbert Marsh, a 25-acre ecological reserve that is home to dozens of species of birds.  An Orange County supervisor said, “The impact to the environment is irreversible.”  When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf on April 20, 2010, it killed 11 people and injured 17 others.  By the time it was capped three months later it had caused the death of 105,400 sea birds, 7,600 adult and 160,000 juvenile sea turtles, and up to a 51% decrease in dolphins in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay.  We need to rethink the cost (and who profits) of ocean drilling.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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