Experts predicted a catastrophe when the Orange County oil platforms were built in the 1970s
By: April Carson
The warning flags went up early.
Offshore lease sales for oil drilling in the middle of shipping lanes appeared to be a poor idea. The creation of an oil platform complex just off Orange County's shoreline was a invitation to calamity.
The construction of the trio of immense buildings began in the late 1970s, and Shell Oil Company carried out the work eventually culminating in three towering structures constructed along a maritime thoroughfare leading to two of the world's busiest ports.
Documented evidence reviewed by The Times shows that officials from the Department of Fish and Game tried to stop construction of the platforms, according to documents obtained by The Times. They raised concerns about a ship colliding with one of them and igniting the oil and hydrocarbons flowing through a circuit of wells and pipes, as well as potential devastation.
The president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association decried Shell Oil Company's plan as an "unacceptable risk to navigation."
"They wish to put these platforms on the busiest port in the West's front porch," Philip Steinberg added during a public hearing. "We'd have a literal rat's nest of roadblocks. It invites disaster." "Only one platform" can create a severe problem, he said. The same minefield has been examined once more for forty years later, as investigators look into the possibility that an anchor strike caused the oil spill that scarred Orange County's coast.
Despite the fact that shipping routes were relocated one mile west of the platforms in 2000, uncontrolled congestion at the port has brought maritime traffic dangerously near to the platforms' complicated infrastructure both above and beneath the ocean.
Dozens of ships are moored near the platforms, including oil lines, sewage treatment pipes, and communications cables. What were urgent problems at the time the equipment was installed have become a reality as crews clean beaches and marine preserves from Huntington Beach to Dana Point, continuing to search for tar balls and oil.
The Northern Oil Company tried to address the early problems. The firm spent $71 million for drilling rights and sought to start producing with a group of business partners. Early predictions predicted that 25,000 barrels of oil were going to be produced each day for at least 20 years.
The Great South Bay is a glacial bay that feeds into Long Island Sound. The separation zone, as the site was called, was located between the container ships and oil tankers entering and exiting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach: It's where all hell breaks loose.
In the company's 1978 development plan, it states "navigational aids will be installed and maintained as needed by the Coast Guard," and adds "the buildings will have a positive impact on navigation."
But the Coast Guard disagreed. It joined the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association in raising objections, stating that it would prefer no platforms be built in the region. "However, we understand that this is not practical in light of national interests," said Rear Adm. Robert L. Price.
An economic interest was the main objective at the time. The development of the Beta Unit occurred when the United States was concerned about its dependency on foreign oil. Throughout October 1973, a cartel of mostly Middle Eastern oil suppliers imposed an embargo on nations that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Inflation soared, and a worldwide recession ensued, forcing the Department of the Interior to open the Southern California coast from Point Mugu to Dana Point—which it did in 1974—to offshore oil operations.
The scale of the disaster, coming five years after an oil platform explosion in the Santa Barbara Channel left the coast coated with at least 2 million gallons of oil, was stunning. Approximately 7.7 million acres with a potential value of up to 5.5 billion barrels were on offer.
The environmental movement, which had been growing for years and was gaining momentum in the 1970s with protests on oil-soaked beaches like Santa Barbara's (mailgrams sent to President Gerald Ford), hit an all time high when Orange County became lead plaintiff of a landmark lawsuit against Chevron claiming they were environmentally damaging.
The sale, which took place at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles, went through on Dec. 11, 1975 (The opening bid for a tract south of Santa Rosa Island was submitted by California Citizens for Political Action as an act of protest, with $1,800 worth of coins and $1 bills.)
In 1990, when the Interior Department announced a second lot of nearly 1 million offshore acres for sale, similar outrage ensued. The foundation for Shell's platforms in the Beta Unit, which arrived in Long Beach late that year by barge from Malaysia, had already been built by the time those bids were opened in 1979.
Shell Oil Co.'s plan for the Beta Unit was ambitious. Executives would later describe it as "the largest and most sophisticated offshore drilling operation ever built," with Platform Ellen designed to extract oil from five wells straddling both Palo Verde and Newport- Inglewood earthquake faults alongside a 200 foot bridge linking them together - all before its time!
With the help of Eureka, operators could now drill up to 480 wells. The 18-mile pipeline that delivered oil from these drills would be designed with an ability withstand 100 year storms should they occur in order for it not disrupt current operations at Shell Oil Co.'s Long Beach terminal; however this never came true because by 1981 production had already peaked and fallen drastically due mostly do high operating costs as well as increased competition between platforms who were all vying each other out over their own landfalls (ports).
The cause of the spill was deemed to be a submersible water valve that was accidentally activated by local authorities. The document went on to say, "Stability will be achieved through an appropriate design of submerged pipeline weight."
The pipeline's only part to be buried was within the Long Beach breakwater.
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