Three offshore drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, which extends into Ventura County waters, have been ordered by the U.S. Department of the Interior to cease drilling operations. Platforms Heritage, Gail and Houchin have had to respond to the issued moratoria by capping their wells and suspending operations.

The fear from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill is now adversely affecting employment and economic production locally, as many offshore workers employed by drilling contractors have been laid off. In a time when government has vowed to create more jobs to decrease the historic jobless rate, many in the offshore drilling industry are now getting in line for unemployment.

“I’ve filed for unemployment, but it’s still not enough,” said Alson Ortega, 28, a Fillmore resident. Ortega, was working steadily on Platform Gail, which is located in 739 feet of water, about 10 miles offshore from Oxnard, as a derrickhand for Kenai Drilling, until operations were suspended on June 17.

 “I’m not struggling, but it’s uncomfortable now. There is nothing out there,” he said. “The work is offshore. Or you can drive to Bakersfield and stay in a motel. But I’m ready. My bags are packed.”

The Obama administration’s offshore drilling moratorium, issued May 28 by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, suspended platform drilling activity based on specific water depths more than 500 feet, as well as new regulations that slowed or stopped work on wells in shallower water. Though the moratorium was overturned by the U.S. District Court on June 22, platforms nationally and locally expected more suspensions, and continued to halt drilling. On July 12, Salazar issued a new deepwater drilling suspension that could last through Nov. 30. This suspension is the result of new evidence regarding safety concerns and applies to drilling operations that use subsea blowout preventers.

“What that suspension did,” explained John Romero, public affairs officer for Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), “it called for a number of steps to be done by the industry to ensure safe activity and operations.”

But extending the suspension to the Pacific region has some experts perplexed.

“It’s fair to say that while this impact of the moratorium on the Pacific is not as severe as in the Gulf, it has impacted operations and it does threaten jobs,” said Tupper Hull, vice president of strategic communications for Western States Petroleum Association, a nonprofit trade association headquartered in Sacramento.

What concerns Hull and WSPA about the moratorium is that the operations taking place in the Gulf on platforms like Deepwater Horizon don’t bear much relationship to the daily operations on platforms in the Pacific. The platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, which make up about 80 percent of the drilling platforms in the Pacific, have been producing from the same oil fields for close to 40 years, said Hull, and these fields are not under the kinds of pressure encountered by Deepwater Horizon. If the moratorium, which is supposed to be lifted in November, is overly prolonged, Hull suggested that it would impact more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from these local platforms, resulting in more lost jobs, more dependence on foreign oil and less energy security.

“The kind of drilling impacted by this moratorium is simply maintenance drilling, which is an ongoing requirement of continuing to produce energy offshore,” said Hull. “It is not exploratory drilling. It’s not going into unknown preserves.”

Kenai Drilling, which oversees drilling operations on Pacific Offshore Operator’s Platform Houchin and Venoco Inc.’s Platform Gail, confirmed that 32 employees on Gail and 18 on Houchin had to be laid off with the onset of the moratoria. Platform Houchin operates at a depth of only 163 feet, four miles offshore from the Ventura/Santa Barbara county line, but was still ordered by the BOEMRE regional manager to immediately stop drilling operations.

“A whole bunch is sitting at home,” said Gene Kramer, general manager of Kenai Drilling, who is still trying to figure out the details of how and when drilling can resume. “It’s sad. It’s a hard life already, and they just made it a lot harder. It’s going to affect more than offshore, too. By the time this is all said and done, it is going to affect the whole economy.”

Kramer said his employees make between $17 and $29 per hour, and a typical schedule for a rig worker is seven days on, seven days off, then seven days on and nine days off. The consecutive days on the platform allow employees a greater saving potential, which ultimately leads to spending opportunities during their time off.

“The more employment you have on the rigs, the more employment you have in town,” said Kramer. “It slows the economy down if they don’t have the money to spend.”

Platform Heritage, which operates at a depth of l,075 feet, is operated by Exxon Mobil. Exxon couldn’t release platform specific data but said that more than 230 employees work their rigs in the Santa Barbara channel. But the fight for employment isn’t only reserved for drilling teams.

“It’s not only people employed by the company, but subcontractors, cooks, people that clean up the galleys, launderers, engineering and drilling, and technical folks are at risk,” said Romero.

Romero confirmed that Exxon Mobil is currently going through the steps to make sure it is compliant with the second moratorium. Eventually, Exxon, as well as the other operators who have been suspended, will submit a revised application permit to drill.   

shane@vcreporter.com