From rigs to reefs: turning old oil rigs into vertical reefs

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have published a study on efforts to turn old oil rigs into permanent reefs that could be home to millions of marine plants and animals off the coast of California.

There are some 6,000 offshore oil platforms worldwide, pumping petroleum and natural gas to meet our dirty energy demands. But beneath the water’s surface, these hulking structures are proving to be an environmental wonder. The complex shape of the rig’s support creates a 3D reef for animals to colonize and live near, while the rig’s open construction allows currents to pass through, bringing nutrients.

This is yet another example of nature being far ahead of humankind. “We say, ‘oh, we’ll turn these platforms into reefs’,” said Milton Love, a research biologist at UC Santa Barbari, “but as far as the marine life is concerned, they already are reefs.”

In 2014, Love and a team of researchers assessed the biological productivity of rigs of the coast of California. The results were staggering: “Platforms off California, as far as the fish were concerned, were the most productive habitats in the word,” Love said. “More productive than coral reefs, more productive than Chesapeake Bay.”

Their findings are relevant as they directly impact the public debate on what to do with old rigs. In the EU, all decommissioned platforms must be removed completely, but in the Gulf of Mexico, reefing old platforms is now routine.

Costs are a major factor in favour of reefing. The most recent estimate for removing all platforms off of the California coast totals $8 billion, said Love’s colleague Ann Scarborough Bull. Modifying them to serve as permanent reefs cuts the costs significantly.

But the savings don’t just benefit the oil companies, which foot 100 per cent of the decommissioning costs. States that have rigs-to-reefs laws require that the oil company share with the state a portion of the money it will save if a platform is reefed rather than removed, explained Scarborough Bull. This often comes up to 50 per cent of the cost savings.

Fisherman also stand to benefit from reefing old platforms. “In the Gulf of Mexico, when you go fishing, you motor up to a platform and tie directly to it,” she said.

The researchers hope that their study will help inform California residents and policymakers as they decide what to do with platforms slated for retirement off its coast.

“Decisions are going to have to be made about more and more of these structures,” said Love. “We want everyone to have the same facts as they go into the process so decisions can be made on a rational basis.”

Image via Pixabay

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