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Rigs to Reefs: New Life For Offshore Platforms

Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson,
Blue Latitudes

All over the globe, mankind has impacted our oceans in every way imaginable, and in most cases, to a devastating biological end.

Despite this, something strange is developing in the most unexpected of places—beneath towering steel lattice work structures, some of the world’s most productive ecosystems have been thriving on offshore oil platforms.

Enter the Rigs-to-Reefs (R2R) program (www.rig2reefexploration.org), an alternative to complete platform removal whereby an oil company may choose to modify a platform so that it may continue to support marine life as an artificial reef rather than completely removing the structure, as is often required by state and federal leases. Through this decommissioning process, the oil well is capped and the upper 85 ft. of the platform is towed to an alternative “reefing” location or toppled in place. Since the program’s inception in the late 1980s, the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) has reefed more than 450 of its nearly 3,000 platforms. Despite this, the rest of the world has been slow to catch on. Oil platforms can be found in almost every ocean, but only a handful of countries have implemented an R2R law, and even fewer have actually reefed their platforms.

The ecosystems thriving on offshore oil platforms represent a unique silver lining to the realities of our history of insatiable offshore energy development. Protected from nearshore impacts such as run-off and offshore threats such as commercial trawling, these platforms have developed into incredibly robust and diverse microcosms of life. For example, in California, the underwater beams and cross beams supporting oil and gas production facilities also provide a home to a variety of life, such as strawberry anemones, starfish and scallops the size of tennis balls. In between the beams, brilliantly colored garibaldi guard their nests and swarms of other fish swim around.

However, there are those who would like to see these oil platforms and their ecosystems completely removed, and the seafloor returned to its original state.

To understand the advantages of R2R, one must delve deeper into the complexities of the program. In California, the U.S. government has estimated that within five to 20 years, all 27 offshore oil and gas platforms in the state will stop producing quantities adequate to be considered economically viable, and the cost of their removal will be exorbitant. Experts have estimated the cost of completely decommissioning all 27 platforms to be over $1 billion.

Partial removal, or “reefing” the platform, can drastically reduce decommissioning costs. States with R2R programs generate revenue by receiving half of the avoided decommissioning costs, while the other half of the cost savings goes back to oil company stakeholders. The cost savings add up: In Louisiana, the state averages $270,000 per reefing and has completed more than 330.

We believe the opposition primarily stems from a lack of public understanding of the goals of the program and the science that backs it up. Some anti-reefing activists believe platforms do not produce fish but merely attract them, while others argue that abandoned structures rob natural reefs of fish and prevent trawling and other commercial fishing activities. Greenpeace has conceded that some reefed platforms, if nontoxic, may increase marine life; however, the organization believes they should still be banned because they benefit oil firms.

As the world’s “natural reefs” become overexploited and polluted, permitting offshore platforms to remain in place may be the best decision for the future of our oceans. It’s time to think creatively about the resources we have and proceed boldly with radical new tactics for ocean management. There are offshore platforms found in almost every ocean around the world. Each is home to a unique and incredibly robust ecosystem flourishing quietly below the surface. As offshore production slows with aging structures, the fate of the world’s platforms stands at an important policy crossroads, and we must decide whether converting rigs to reefs serves ecological and economic goals better than the current status quo of complete removal.

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