There comes a time when the useful life of an oil rig comes to an end - at least when it comes to drilling for oil.
What is Rigs-to-Reefs?
Rigs-to-Reefs (R2R) provides an alternative to complete rig removal in which an oil company chooses to modify a platform so that it can continue to support marine life as an artificial reef. Through this decommissioning process, the oil well is capped and the upper 85 feet of the platform is either towed, toppled in place, or removed. Not all platforms are suitable as reefing candidates, and in order for any platform to be considered for reefing, it must first undergo extensive ecological evaluations to assess any potential value it might add to the local ecosystem.
What does it mean for California?
California's horizon has been speckled by oil and gas platforms since the 1950's. Although these towering, distant objects bring in over 2 billion dollars in annual oil revenue to the state of California, many local residents complain that their very existence is a brutal eyesore and an extreme liability should there be an oil spill. These legitimate grievances may soon receive retribution as the oil wells dry up and offshore production slows to a halt.
With the potential to be decommissioned in the next decade, California stands at an important policy crossroads: safely eliminating the eye sore and liability of the oil and gas platforms while still protecting the valuable and fragile ecosystems that have formed on and around these structures.
Oil rigs as an artificial reef, really?
Scientific studies at UC Santa Barbara conclude that the underwater platform structures have evolved into economically and ecologically valuable ecosystems. "In some locations, platforms may provide much or all of the adult fishes of some heavily-fished species and this contribute disproportionately to those species larval production." The complete removal of these oil and gas platforms will unquestionably harm the animals and plants that call these structures home.
After California offshore oil and gas platforms stop producing profitable quantities of oil, the structures must be decommissioned and the seabed restored to its original, pre-drilling condition. However, with some of California's platforms reaching depths greater than of the empire state building, the complete removal process will be complicated to design and implement. Further consequences include the immense cost, perhaps $5 million to remove the complete rig, and the carbon footprint that accompanies the process, emanating from the barges that will transport the rigs' component steel to places as far away as Texas or even China. R2R offers an alternative to complete rig removal.
Costs of Rigs-to-Reefs?
In addition to providing a sustainable artificial reef ecosystem, R2R also yields an economic benefit to both the state of California and the oil company stakeholders. The cost of implementing the R2R program is $800,000 per structure; resulting in potential savings of over $4 million. Approximately 50% of these savings are allocated to the state of California and help to finance marine research and state park objectives.
What about liability?
Through the R2R process, the oil well is capped and the upper 85ft of platform structure is removed at the expense of the oil company, leaving the remaining structure in place so that is can continue to support marine life. The oil company then donates the underwater platform to the state to manage as an artificial reef, while retaining financial liability for the oil well should there be leakage.
Claisse, Jeremy T., Pondella, Daniel J., Love, Milton, Zahn, Laurel A., Williams, Chelsea M., Bull, Ann S. (2015) “Impacts from Partial Removal of Decommissioned Oil and Gas Platforms on Fish Biomass and Production on the Remaining Platform Structure and Surrounding Shell Mounds”. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0135812.
Jeremy T. Claisse, Pondella, Daniel J., Love, Milton, Zahna, Laurel A., Williams, Chelsea M., Williams, Jonathan, P., Bull, Ann S. (2014) “Oil platforms off California are among the most productive marine fish habitats globally”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Helvey, M. (2002) “Are southern California oil and gas platforms essential fish habitat?”. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 59: S266–S271.
Holbrook, Sally J., Ambrose, Richard F., Botsford, Louis, Carr, Mark H., Raimondi, Peter T., Tegner, Mia J. (2000) “Ecological Issues Related to Decommissioning of California’s Offshore Production Platforms”. Report to the University of California Marine Council by The Select Scientific Advisory Committee on Decommissioning University of California.
Macreadie, Peter, Fowler, Ashley M., Booth, David J. (2011) “Rigs-to-reefs: will the deep sea benefit from artificial habitat?”. Front Ecol Environ 2011; 9(8): 455–461
Schroeder, Donna M., Love, Milton S. (2004) “Ecological and political issues surrounding decommissioning of offshore oil facilities in the Southern California Bight”. Ocean & Coastal Management 47 21–48.
“Shell Mounds Environmental Review Volume 1 Final Technical Report” (2001) L.A. de Wit, Consultant. Prepared for the California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission.