Federal records show Exxon oil rigs corroded before 2015 California oil spill

According to Federal records, offshore oil rigs operated by ExxonMobil were already in disrepair due to corrosion before the Refugio oil spill of 2015 that coated Santa Barbara-area beaches and killed hundreds of birds and marine mammals.

The inspection records, collected by the Center for Biological Diversity, indicated that the oil rigs had a number of instances of corrosion and gas leaks, serious enough to warrant calling in emergency teams in the days leading up to the rigs' actual shutdown in May 2015. The Center for Biological Diversity announced its findings in a press release on May 6.

This is just the latest development in the continuing battle over offshore drilling between big oil companies and the California state government. The revelation of corrosion adds a new dimension to the controversy.

Worker at offshore oil rigCorrosion can be a major problem in offshore oil drilling platforms.

Federal vs. state government

The federal government's change in direction has further complicated the issue. The administration recently announced its intention of reopening the waters off the California coast to new drilling platforms while the state fights to maintain its offshore rig restriction.

Kristen Monsell, legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, stated the organization's position quite firmly: "ExxonMobil's decrepit drilling platforms need to be decommissioned, not brought back to life like Frankenstein's monster." She added, "It's disturbing to read reports of corroded platforms and flammable gas leaks before they were shut down by a massive coastal oil spill. Offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous, and it needs to be ended, not extended."

On the state level, on Sept. 20, 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed two pieces of legislation designed to block the federal government's offshore drilling plan. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the two laws would prohibit the construction of pipelines, piers, wharves or other infrastructure necessary to transport the oil and gas from federal waters to state land – the most economical way of bringing the oil to market.

The corrosion problems of ExxonMobil's Pacific platforms

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, federal inspections in May 2015 revealed that Well H-12U on Exxon's Platform Hondo had a great number of problems, including corrosion issues, five non-functioning gas detectors, components that weren't in compliance and leakage rates that exceeded regulations.      

In addition, the Center for Biological Diversity described an environmental emergency on Platform Heritage in 2015 in which a broken pipeline spilled over 120,000 gallons of oil into the ocean near Refugio Beach while ExxonMobil crews were present in the recreation room of the rig. It was also reported that all three of the oil company's Pacific platforms had safety-related incidents in early 2015 when crews had to be mobilized because of gas leaks.   

The Center employed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement regulatory reports from 2015 to 2018. Those reports detailed widespread issues, such as a Platform Harmony gas leak March 29, 2015, another leak on Platform Hondo April 27, 2015, as well as extensive corrosion and electrical issues discovered in an Aug. 27, 2015 inspection of Harmony.   

California's offshore drilling problems go back a long way. Another Los Angeles Times story in March mentioned the fate of Platform Holly and six other rigs off the Santa Barbara coast now due to be shut down permanently. In 1969, an accident at Holly led to a historic 80,000 barrel oil spill, which resulted in California and the U.S. government taking steps to stop the development of new platforms in local and federal waters. According to The Times, the nearly-deserted platform is now virtually a ghost town. A tour of the facilities revealed old switches and instruments coated with corrosion.  

Whatever the initial cause of these various oil spills, they do point to the critical need to maintain constant vigilance in the area of maintenance, particularly when it comes to corrosion control in ocean waters.