When Long Beach eventually phases out oil production, a big question will loom: What does the city do with the THUMS Islands, the decorative oil platforms situated off the coast of Long Beach since the mid-1960s?

Long Beach is starting the conversation this year on the possibilities for the oil islands, which range from 10 to 12 acres in size and contain hundreds of thousands of tons of boulders and sand.

Kicking off that conversation was part of Mayor Rex Richardson’s budget requests this year, which were adopted by the City Council earlier this month. Richardson said he’s never been to the islands but plans to tour them soon. He’s open to all suggestions, especially ones that could generate money for the city in the future.

“If there’s an opportunity to use some of that infrastructure on something that’s climate-friendly, that’s a revenue generator, that’s what I’m going to prioritize going forward,” Richardson said.

The city has said it expects that oil operations in the city will end in 2035 when it is no longer economically viable to pump oil out of the ground in Long Beach. The islands will then need to be used to prevent subsidence by pumping water into the ground to stabilize the surface.

But once that’s over, they could be open for new uses.

‘The Astronaut Islands’ 

While the islands have served as a platform to bring oil up from under the Earth’s crust, they were named after NASA astronauts who died in the line of duty.

The four islands (Grissom, Chaffee, White and Freeman) were built in 1965 so that the Texaco, Humble, Unocal, Mobil and Shell (THUMS) companies could access the Wilmington Oil Field that lies under the city and off its coast.

At their peak, the islands helped produce nearly 150,000 barrels of oil per day, but that number has dwindled over the decades to about 15,000 barrels per day, according to the most recent production plan submitted to state regulators this year.

Bob Dowell, the city’s director of Energy Resources, which oversees oil operations, said whatever happens, the islands are likely to remain a fixture of the city’s coastline.

“They were $22 million each to put in; they’d probably be well in excess of $200 million to remove them,” Dowell said.

One of the THUMS oil islands off the Long Beach coast, Thursday, March 11, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

That cost hasn’t been factored into the city’s share of oil well abandonment, which was last estimated to be over $1.2 billion, with Long Beach having set aside about $70 million of its anticipated $154 million share.

Dowell said that there’s a lot of water being drawn out of the ground, with every 100 barrels of liquid pulled out only netting about 2 barrels of oil. After oil extraction ends, the city will have to continue to use those wells to inject water back into the ground to prevent the ground above from sinking, something that was a problem in the early days of oil production in the city.

The islands will need to be used for that purpose until it’s certain the city is safe from sinking.

“Nobody knows how long that’s going to be,” Dowell said. “Best estimates are somewhere between five and 10 years, but the city needs to be assured that there will be no surface elevation changes.”

How soon they’ll transition away from oil could rely on a state bill’s fate at the ballot box next year, which has the potential to speed up the city’s phase-out of oil and cost the city tens of millions per year.

About 2,000 wells would potentially have to be plugged and some surface facilities like storage tanks and buildings could have to be removed, Dowell said. Then the work can begin to transition the Astronaut Islands to their next life.

Hotels? Bird sanctuaries? Carbon capture? 

Dowell said there have been a number of ideas kicked around in recent years of what the islands could be.

Some have pitched a hotel and even worked up a rendering of what that could look like, while other potentially less costly ideas like a bird sanctuary have also been floated. The idea of building gondolas to transport people out to the islands has also been raised.

There is electricity and plumbing that runs between all four islands so there is some infrastructure in place already, but Dowell pointed out that the limited space—Grissom is the largest at 12 acres—and the issue of transporting people to and from islands could mean that their eventual uses will not be open to the public.

“I’ve heard things like putting offshore windmills to generate electricity, but I’m not sure people want to see them so close to shore,” Dowell said.

The island Grissom is one of four oil islands in Long Beach with the Queen Mary in the background Thursday, October 1, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

There’d need to be a level of environmental cleanup that would have to happen before anything new takes over after decades of oil production on the islands, depending on what the city decides to do with them in the future.

Carbon capture, an emerging technology that is being looked at as a way to store carbon dioxide underground where oil was once stored, could be another option.

The state is looking at carbon capture as a way to hit its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, but some have criticized it as a tool to prolong oil extraction in the state, as the gas could be used to access oil that was previously too hard to reach.

Dowell said that electricity generation is also a possibility. That process would include pressurizing underground aquifers with water and allowing it to rise up through an impeller at night when electricity is in high demand but solar is not an option. That could provide the city with a new source of clean energy.

But all of these ideas are conceptual as of now. The city discussion will begin this year and Richardson said it’s a “once in a multiple-generation opportunity” to reimagine how the islands fit into the city’s future economy.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I think right now is the time to imagine what those uses could be,” Richardson said.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.