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Climate and Environment

OC Oil Spill: The History Behind Offshore Oil Platform Elly

An aerial view shows the Huntington Beach coastline and a massive oil spill in the water.
In an aerial view, a containment boom blocks oil-contaminated water (L) in the area of the Talbert Marsh wetlands after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform on Oct. 4, 2021 in Huntington Beach, California.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images North America)
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Investigators trying to pinpoint the cause of the big oil spill in Orange County say they suspect offshore oil platform Elly was somehow involved. So I dug into public records to find out who Elly is and what she’s done, if anything, to foul the coastline.

The Story Of Elly

Back in 1980, Royal Dutch Shell built two oil platforms about 250 feet above the floor of the ocean, and named them Elly and Ellen. They are about 4.5 miles offshore and they operate under federal rules. In 1984, Royal Dutch Shell built another one named Eureka.

Ellen and Eureka have dozens of wells that pull oil up from below the ocean, and they send the oil via pipeline to Elly for processing.

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Elly has machinery that separates the water and natural gas that comes up from the wells from the crude oil. The oil is then sent 17.5 miles away, via a pipeline on the ocean floor, to a terminal in Long Beach where it is refined into fuel for airplanes and cars.

A map shows the sites of oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach labeled Edith, Elly, Ellen and Eureka. A red line shows the pipelines connecting the platforms as well as two lines extending from a central point to the shore.
Schematic shows the location of the oil platforms and pipelines involved in Saturday's spill.
(Courtesy Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

Elly And Siblings Have Had Some Problems

Since 2010, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has issued 53 warnings that Beta Operating Co. was out of compliance with operating standards. And 71 times over the past decade or so, the company was ordered to stop operating components of its platforms or wells.

Back in 2010, the entire operation faced a “facility shut-in,” halting all operations.

But there’s more. Beta Operating Company’s then-parent company, Memorial Production Partners, sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2017 and restructured billions in debt in order to emerge from the bankruptcy court oversight.

Last year, Beta’s current parent company Amplify Energy received $5.5 million in federal Payroll Protection Program loans that were forgiven. The money was provided to help keep companies afloat and their employees paid through the pandemic. Gas prices fell to their lowest point in years during pandemic precautions that caused many commuters to stay home, so it was a tough year for the oil industry.

An image of two oil platforms off the coast of Long Beach. A bridge connects the two structures.
The oil platforms Elly and Ellen sit off the coast of Long Beach.
(Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)

The Smart Pig And The Pipeline

About a week ago, Beta Operating Company — an affiliate of parent company Amplify Energy — ran a “smart pig” through the 16-inch pipeline from platform Elly to the Long Beach terminal, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said Sunday.

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A “pig” is a device that fits into a pipeline to examine it or clean the pipeline from the inside. And a smart pig is one that has instruments to check for cracks or other pipeline problems. It could also measure the pressure of the oil in the line.

The company also used sonar to look at the exterior of the pipeline.

Willsher did not say if the piggy found any problems or if it caused any. He was only explaining those steps as part of the regular maintenance of the pipeline.

On Saturday, the company staff noticed that oil was rising to the surface of the water. They have tried to find out where it’s coming from. Divers have gone down to check that out, so has the Coast Guard.

126,000 Gallons Of Oil Spilled: How Do They Know?

Willsher said the company calculated the spill based on the volume of oil that can fit into a 16-inch diameter pipe that runs 17.5 miles from the platforms to the oil terminal in Long Beach.

The company suctioned that oil out of the pipeline and sealed it at both ends of the pipe. Willsher said.

It’s not clear whether the oil suctioned from the pipe went into the ocean or was contained at the platform Elly or in Long Beach. A representative for Amplify did not respond to a request for comment on that procedure, the company's history of enforcement actions or its financial condition.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected October 9, 2021 at 3:08 PM PDT
This story is updated to clarify Beta had a different parent company when the bankruptcy was filed.
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