Retired Oil and Gas Platforms Transform Into Marine Sanctuaries

by Glenda Pavon-Suriel

What happens to an offshore oil rig when it retires? A few years before an offshore oil well is no longer producing oil the decommissioning process begins. This involves sealing and plugging the well with cement. The process can cost oil companies several million dollars, about as much as it cost to construct the entire oil rig. Full decommissioning includes not only sealing the well but also removing the platform. Consider an alternative to complete removal. Imagine a retired platform being described as an underwater oasis. An “oasis” is precisely how Ashley Palinkas, a conservation biologist described the Eureka platform off the coast of Long Beach, California, to the New York Times.

The Eureka oil platform is located eight miles off the coast of California. Beneath the water there is a thriving and diverse marine habitat. Coral and crustaceans enclose the platform’s columns, fish hide amidst the reef, and sea lions swim in teams. Thanks to the Eureka oil platform and similar ones like it, there is a movement to transform decommissioned oil platforms off of the California coast into artificial reefs.

Artificial reefs have been used since the 18th century and items ranging from trees, cars, sunken ships, and old tires have been used. The benefits of artificial reefs are often under-considered. Unlike many artificial reef formations used throughout history that are horizontal, offshore oil and gas rigs are unique because of their depth and the fact that they are vertical. Distinct aquatic life can thrive at varying depths beneath the ocean so the platforms provide uncommon and bio-diverse ecosystems. The Eureka stands at a depth of about 720 feet.

California in particular is unique in its marine bio-diversity because of its coldwater currents from British Columbia that give rise to a plethora of aquatic wildlife uncommon to other parts of the world and in combinations only found in the Golden State.

But the Golden State has more than a little problem; known as environmentalists. Many environmentalist groups want oil platforms like the Eureka removed entirely, once they are retired. Groups like the Environmental Defense Center based in Santa Barbara, claim that people have been waiting for these rigs to be removed because of repeated oil spills that were in fact, heartbreaking. But removing these rigs does not change the fact that the oil spills happened. Perhaps one of the few ways we can rectify the tragedy of oil spills is by partially decommissioning these platforms and allowing them to become a rich and abundant habitat beneath the tide.

Blue Latitudes, in partnership with Rigs-to-Reefs, is an organization started by two oceanographers hoping to bring awareness to the extraordinary ecosystems offshore oil and gas platforms can provide.

Part of the reason environmentalists do not want to see the rigs remain is that it is seen as a way to save oil and gas companies money. The environmentalist position is that the companies agreed to pay to remove these structures when they were built. However, lawmakers in California have already proposed that a large percentage of the money oil companies would save by not removing the entire platform must be donated to marine wildlife conservation and research. Perhaps the greenies in the golden state are cutting their nose to spite their face.

Off shore oil and gas drilling will not go away. Whether it’s off the California coast or in the North Sea. Many offshore rigs nearing retirement were built decades ago. Since then there have been many accidents that cost countless innocent marine lives. But as a realist, one must recognize that the planet’s needs for fossil fuels and our love of animals (those that swim and those that live on land) must be reconciled.

By forcing oil companies to remove the oil rigs, environmentalists are not only essentially removing what could be an important research tool, but they’re costing what could amount to millions of dollars in funding for marine wildlife conservation.

Programs like Rigs-to-Reefs could serve as a model for other organizations and eventually transform a percentage of oil and gas platforms all over the world into artificial reefs.

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