Menus Subscribe Search
Oil rig at sunset

Gulf Coast Oil Platforms: Save the Rigs?

• June 13, 2012 • 4:00 AM

A federal program urges the fast removal of “idle iron” oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. But in an unexpected twist, some environmentalists want the rigs to remain as a home for fish.

This year, it’s likely more than 100 offshore structures in the Gulf of Mexico will be removed as part of a Department of the Interior plan. There are 650 nonproducing oil and gas platforms, known in the industry as “idle iron,” listed for removal “as soon as possible”—i.e. within five years of the end of production or a year of losing the lease—under Interior’s directive. Historically, companies seldom removed an idle structure until the lease for the area where it was located expired.

Having companies clean up after themselves sounds like a good idea, but many recreational fishermen, scuba divers, scientists, and fishery managers aren’t happy about it. Turns out, some of the 2,500 multileg platforms that pepper the Gulf of Mexico have become de facto artificial reefs. According to Bob Shipp, University of South Alabama’s Department of Marine Sciences, the platforms have transformed the entire ecosystem. Some marine species are attracted to platforms for shelter or food, but others—sea fans, sponges, algae, and reef fish—spend their entire life cycle on these structures. What’s more, some species have increased in number because of the platforms.

Typically, platform removal involves using explosives on each of the support legs. These blasts kill fish and other marine life, says Clint Moore, a vice president for corporate development at ION Geophysical Corporation and former oil and gas representative to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement estimates that removing a platform kills 800 fish on average. Fishermen put the number in the tens of thousands.

Brent Casey, a fishing charter boat captain in Port Aransas, Texas, says that even the government’s low figure means a single platform removal kills an entire year’s catch limit of red snapper. “In another three years, there won’t be anywhere to fish off of Port Aransas, no reef habitat,” Casey says.

Rather than remove a structure, under federally endorsed but state-run Rigs-to-Reefs programs, companies can convert platforms to a designated artificial reef. These artificial reefs are an important part of conserving marine habitat, says Dale Shively, manager of the program for Texas. Yet as of 2009, only 2 percent of decommissioned platforms in less than 100 feet of water and 38 percent of those between 101 and 200 feet of water were officially reefed—generally meaning moved (but not all; some are toppled in place). Drew Hunger, manager of decommissioning for Houston-based Apache Corporation, one of the largest operators in the Gulf, blames a restrictive and lengthy permitting process.

Another problem with the Rigs-to-Reefs program: reefed platforms must be toppled or dropped to a depth of at least 85 feet beneath the water surface, but before reefing, most marine creatures are living on the part of the structure at depths of about 60 feet or shallower.

Louisiana Senator David Vitter introduced legislation last year that would leave the platforms where they are if protected—or valuable—marine life was found on or around them. Mississippi Representative Steve Palazzo filed a similar bill. Neither is likely to make it out of committee this session. As California has discovered in establishing its own rigs-to-reefs regime, the politics of decommissioning platforms attracts schools of opposing viewpoints, too.

John Hoffman, CEO of Houston-based Black Elk Energy, recently founded nonprofit Save the Blue to encourage reefing by using funds normally spent on platform decommissioning and removal to provide insurance and ongoing maintenance for the structures as reefs. (The organization is still getting its legs.)

On the other hand, it may not always be a bad idea to remove idle platforms: Improperly capped or poorly maintained wells can leak, and storm damage can cause spills. Platforms may disrupt sargassum mats—important habitat for a number of marine species, according to Emma Hickerson, a research coordinator at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary; and the structures have been demonstrated to serve as stepping-stones for invasive species.

But Paul Sammarco, a professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, counters that, while platforms can facilitate the spread of invasive species, those species would proliferate without the platforms, too. Invaders spread via the hulls and ballast water of thousands of ships traveling these waters every year, and the larvae of some species travel long distances naturally.

Given the controversy, and with so much at stake, re-evaluation of the pace of platform removal seems a reasonable request, and one that has been made by a number of groups, including the Gulf Coast Fishery Management Council; Coastal Conservation Association, which represents recreational anglers; and the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Melissa Gaskill
Journalist Melissa Gaskill has a bachelor’s in zoology and a master’s in journalism. She covers science, nature, and outdoor and sustainable travel. She is based in Austin, Texas, and contributes to Nature News, Scientific American, Men’s Journal, Wildflower, and dozens of other publications.

More From Melissa Gaskill

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.