Federal inspection and accident reports show ExxonMobil’s three Santa Barbara Channel platforms were cited for corrosion and leakage problems around the time they were shut down as a result of the unrelated 2015 Refugio Oil Spill in California.
The Exxon findings were unveiled May 6 by the Center for Biological Diversity amid Exxon’s controversial bid to restart the platforms and truck oil to inland refineries. While the report may border on appearing sensational, when it comes to safety issues, protecting workers and the environment, it proves to be a cautionary tale to prevent a potential catastrophe.
In the Refugio spill, a rupture May 19, 2015 on the pipeline system resulted in the release of around 3,000 barrels of oil on Refugio State Beach and along the California coast. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) completed its investigation into the incident and identified external corrosion of pipeline walls as the direct cause of the failure.
In the case of the Exxon wells, officials who visited Platform Hondo in the spring and summer of 2015 found “numerous corrosion issues,” a “number of components out of compliance,” and “leakage rates higher than the maximum allowable,” according to the reports from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Platform Heritage was found to have electrical and corrosion problems “throughout,” according to the report.
One accident report describes an incident on Platform Harmony in which a crate full of pipeline inspection devices — called “pigs” — broke open and tumbled into the ocean, the report said. In two separate cases, workers slipped on spilled hydraulic fluid, injuring their backs.
Though Exxon’s equipment was not responsible for the Refugio spill, the problem is the aging equipment is still part of the same outdated infrastructure, environmentalists said.
“ExxonMobil’s decrepit drilling platforms need to be decommissioned, not brought back to life like Frankenstein’s monster,” said Kristen Monsell, the Center’s ocean legal director, in a post. “At a moment when we should be weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, these offshore drilling platforms should be among the first to go.”
Exxon defended their Santa Barbara operations.
“We’ve been safely operating in Santa Barbara County in compliance with federal, state, and local regulations for nearly four decades,” said spokesperson Julie King in a Santa Barbara Independent report. “We have a long history of safe operations, with 14 federal safety awards.” The company’s focus right now, she said, is securing the trucking application so Americans can buy American oil, “rather than the global impact of importing it from other countries.”
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) downplayed the reports, which the center obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Of the 84 incidents listed, BSEE spokesperson Guy Hayes said only 22 involved Exxon platforms. And of those 22, Hayes said, only one was for an actual pollution event, “and that was for 0.5 ounce of hydraulic fluid that leaked out of a lifeboat … Any Incidents of Non-Compliance that BSEE has issued to ExxonMobil in the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf for Platforms Hondo, Harmony, and Heritage have been promptly addressed,” he said.
Earlier this month, shortly before the fourth anniversary of the Refugio Oil Spill and just after the ninth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Trump administration said it will be rolling back Obama-era safety regulations for offshore drilling.
BSEE is expected to make 59 separate revisions to a 2016 law meant to prevent another Deepwater blowout. The agency said the changes will address safety considerations and lessen the burden on operators. One revision reduces the time of a blowout safety test from 30 minutes to 5 minutes. Another limits the number of necessary connection points on blowout preventers.