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After the Oil Runs Out: Rigs to Reefs

• July 15, 2010 • 10:54 AM

While humans wonder what do with old oil rigs, fish scientist Milton Love suggests his subjects have a definite school of thought.

As recorded by Dr. Love’s submarine cam — and no, that’s not something from an Austin Powers movie — it’s an underwater world as colorful as any exotic locale. Thousands of rockfish, including the distinctive boccacia (Italian for “big mouth”) swim past tall colonnades layered with mussels and topped by bright white-, orange- and strawberry-hued anemones.

Imagine the best tide pool you’ve ever seen, flipped from horizontal to vertical.

Above the surface, though, the camera reveals a marine scene that’s anything but pristine. Turns out, what appears to be a reef is really a rig — an oil-drilling platform that now serves as a sanctuary for sea creatures great and small.

“The first thing anyone — trained scientist or casual recreational diver — notices around a rig is the big fish, lots of them,” explains ichthyologist Milton Love. The University of California, Santa Barbara, scientist has counted, measured and biopsied lots of fish while conducting 10 years of research on the abundant life on these artificial reefs.

Love and his colleagues in the rapidly expanding field of rig research have established that California’s offshore oil platforms host a fish population some 20 to 50 times higher than that of surrounding waters and have a greater population than the state’s natural reefs, many of which have been heavily fished.

For a while, pre-Deepwater Horizon, it seemed more rigs, perhaps lots more, were coming to America. President Obama had announced new plans to allow drilling for oil off Virginia, to increase oil production in the eastern Gulf and to study the viability of rigs off the mid- and southern Atlantic coasts. That’s now less certain, with the administration reversing course and fighting for a moratorium on new drilling. But that’s new drilling — what about the rigs already in place?

What to do with rigs after they stop producing profitable quantities of oil is a question asked more often these days, because many are at or near the end of their economic lives.

More than 4,500 offshore oil and gas platforms have already been installed in U.S. waters and supply 10 percent of the country’s production of oil and 25 percent of its natural gas.

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A diagram of the Rigs to Reef plan where the top 85 feet of a rig is sheered off leaving the rest as an artificial reef. (California Ocean Science Trust)

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By U.S. law, a rig must be removed when it’s abandoned; this process is called platform decommissioning and can be accomplished in four different ways: total removal, partial removal, toppling and leaving-in-place. Leaving part or all of abandoned platform structures in place — shearing off the top of the rig and leaving the tall steel jacket and support struts — is called “Rigs to Reefs.”

Research suggests that removing the rigs would be devastating to resident and nearby marine life and create a number of pollution problems in the process. The political process is less straightforward, although a technical report from the Ocean Science Trust for the state of California’s Ocean Protection Council found the Rigs to Reef concept — alongside full removal — as the most practical prospect, although questions of ownership and future liability remain paramount.

Rigs to Reefs is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to total removal of a platform because it maintains what is de facto marine reserve and at the same time saves oil companies money on their decommissioning obligations.

Recent research confirms that fish and invertebrates thrive around the rigs. A study funded by the Mineral Management Service (now re-dubbed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined the artificial reef effects of seven World War II shipwrecks in deep waters and found an even greater diversity of sea creatures than previously thought.

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The study also revealed that as oil rigs drill deeper into Gulf of Mexico waters, platforms in all depths of water provide habitat for marine life.

Rigs may be extraordinary fish habitats, but not everyone favors keeping them as reefs. Oil platforms contain toxic materials and are surrounded by contaminated debris; that’s reason enough for their complete removal, some environmentalists insist.

Recent research, though, seems to counter that argument. Milton Love’s latest study, “Reproductive Ecology and Body Burden of Resident Fish Prior to Decommissioning,” investigated whether fish living around platforms might be contaminated by drilling activities. “Data suggests that fish populations around the platforms are healthy and stable and reproducing well,” explains the scientist. “My team found that fish living around rigs have the same or lower trace amounts of toxic elements than fish around natural reefs.”

Rig removal is a billion-dollar-a-year business and growing. By removing only part of the rig and leaving behind the rest, an oil company can save millions in decommissioning costs. In Louisiana, a rig operator choosing the reefing option passes on a portion of its savings to the state.

Using this split-the-savings formula in California, where each deepwater rig could cost hundreds of millions, if not a billion dollars to remove, converting a rig to a reef could net the cash-strapped state some serious revenue.

The conservation community is divided on the Rigs to Reefs program:

Some argue that anything artificial in an ocean is bad, and leaving behind part of a platform is another form of ocean-dumping. Return the sea floor to the underwater wilderness area it was before drilling disturbed it, they insist.

Others figure that if a rig looks like a reef and acts like a reef, it’s a reef. They suggest taking some of that rigs-to-reefs payout from the oil companies and putting it into oceanic conservation programs.

With the Gulf mess firmly in mind and many anxious to do something that seems a win-win for both environmentalists and energy producers alike, California politicians are championing the rigs-to-reefs notion for the state’s 27 offshore rigs. A bill that would allow oil companies to remove the top 85 feet of the rigs – leaving the rest standing – sailed through the state Assembly, the Legislature’s lower house, by unanimous vote.

Some ask what’s the hurry? “The scheme could benefit from a little more scrutiny,” the Los Angeles Times commented in a recent editorial that called the rigs-to-reefs legislation “premature.”

The editorial raised the issue of shell mounds, the collection of mollusk detritus that builds up at the base of rigs. A 1996 state study found these mounds contained heavy metals and hydrocarbons that could be released — if the mounds were removed.

The Times also noted that no rigs are expected to be decommissioned before 2015.

However, in the Gulf, oil and gas wells have been decommissioned by the thousands and capped. Very little research has been done on capped wells, known to leak over time. The Associated Press reported recently: “… no industry or government records are kept on oil leaks from abandoned wells.” Would leaving more rigs in place as reefs be better for the environment than capping them?

“More research?” Dr. Love ponders. “Although the benefits of rigs as reefs have been substantially documented, we scientists always like to continue our research and get longer data sets.”

While humans debate the matter, the fish seem to have their own school of thought.

Under the direction of California State University, Long Beach, marine biology professor Christopher Lowe, researchers relocated brown and vermillion rockfish from three different platforms to a natural reef off Anacapa Island, about 11 miles away. Demonstrating that there’s no place like home — or “site fidelity” as scientists put it — some 25 percent of the fish swam right back to their rigs.

John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

More From John McKinney

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