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Offshore Drilling in Southern California: Where it Started

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA⸺ Offshore drilling in Southern California has been a controversial topic since the first offshore oil development was permitted in the state in 1921 and continues to be a heavily debated topic today.

Offshore oil drilling dates back to 1896 when the world’s first offshore drilling wells were drilled from piers in Summerland, Calif. Another 22 companies joined in, constructing 14 more piers and over 400 wells within the next five years, according to the Institute for Energy Resource. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, oil exploration and drilling were virtually unregulated at the time, and spills were common.

The 1920s saw a series of oil discoveries particularly along the Santa Barbara Channel that led to additional offshore drilling, according to A Brief History of Oil Development in Southern California by Milton Love. The discoveries were made on land but development quickly extended onto piers made of steel pilings.

The California State Lands Commission permitted the first offshore oil development in state waters in 1921. Between 1921 and 1929, approximately 100 permits and leases were issued and over 850 wells were drilled in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in state waters, according to the State Lands Commission.

The first oil platform off California, and perhaps in the world, according to Love, was completed in 1932 by the Indian Petroleum Company. Constructed of steel in 38 feet of water, the aptly named “Steel Island” was eventually home to three wells that stood until January 1, 1940, when waves battered and destroyed the platform, according to Love.

In 1929, the Legislature prohibited any new leases or permits in state waters, not allowing new leasing until 1938, and again in 1955.

By the 1960s, offshore oil production began to take off in California. A number of platforms were installed in state waters and began in federal waters with the installation of Platform Hogan in 1967, according to Love.

Expansion of offshore oil drilling came to an abrupt halt in 1969 when a disastrous blowout and subsequent oil spill at Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel released about 80,000 barrels of oil into the waterway. The spill inspired the first Earth Day and raised environmental concerns about the safety of offshore oil exploration, development, and production, which delayed further drilling for a number of years.

Installation of new platforms resumed in the late 1970s. According to a June 3, 1974, Desert Sun article, the U.S. Department of Interior announced in January 1974 its intention to lease some of the 7.7 million acres of continental shelf lying outside the state’s three-mile territorial limit between Point Mugu and Dana Point. The State Lands Commission, meanwhile, had also lifted its five-year moratorium against drilling new wells in the stale’s offshore domain, the article also reported.

In 1994, the State Lands Commission placed the entirety of California’s coast and state waters off-limits to new oil and gas leases. Despite multiple attempts to lock in a West Coast drilling ban over the years, new oil and gas leasing continues to be allowed in federal waters off the Southern California coast, but no new platforms have been erected since 1989 (Nevarez et al. 1998), according to Love.

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