Rigged for Success: Preserving Portions of Former Oil Platforms May Be Crucial Habitat for Sea Life

March 8, 2017

By Jenny Cornuelle Krusoe

The rigs-to-reefs plan seemed like a great idea when the California Legislature passed it in 2010: a program funded by the oil industry that turned defunct off-shore drilling platforms into artificial reefs for ocean life. But the plan ran aground amid a shoal of unworkable processes. In the program’s first five years, not a single company has applied to take part.

Now, in a bid to relaunch the program on a better course, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg  (D-Los Angeles) has introduced legislation to overhaul how the system works.

Hertzberg spent two years working with stakeholders to streamline review processes while more fully assessing all the environmental trade-offs involved in decommissioning oil rigs and deciding whether they should be partly left in place or completely removed.   

“The environmental challenges of the 21st century require dynamic thinking and smart policymaking,” Hertzberg said. “Turning old oil rigs into artificial reefs is a creative solution to an old problem that has shown enormous benefits in other parts of the world. This legislation establishes the process and safeguards necessary to ensure the rigs-to-reefs program will be environmentally beneficial and successful.”

Rigs-to-Reefs attempts to smartly deal with the reality that every drilling platform has a useful life – at least when it comes to extracting oil and gas – that eventually ends. In California, where oil and gas platforms have speckled the coastline since the 1950s, that matters a lot.

Rigs-lack-biological-diversity-of-natural-reefs

Although these towering, distant objects bring in more than $2 billion annually to the state, residents and environmentalists call the platforms an eyesore and potential spill liability.  When production halts, the complaints become even sharper.

And with many more platforms headed to decommissioning in the next decade, California must efficiently get the platforms removed safely while nurturing valuable and fragile ecosystems that already have formed on and around these structures.

Rigs-to-Reefs can be a more affordable alternative to complete rig removal, converting a decommissioned platform into a giant, vertical artificial home to dozens of plant and animal species. The well is capped and the platform’s upper 85 feet are towed away, toppled in place, or removed.

Will potential liabilities outstrip benefits?

The original legislation promised much, but couldn’t persuade even one rig operator to participate.

Defenders of the law blamed the non-existent participation on relatively high oil prices, which kept many aging platforms economically viable far longer than otherwise. Regardless, when it came time to consider rig conversion, critics said the legislation put operators through an onerous and needlessly bureaucratic process.

Oil platform pylons with fish and marine life. Photo by Caine Delacy, courtesy of Stocksy.

Oil platform pylons with fish and marine life. Photo by Caine Delacy, courtesy of Stocksy.

Under current law, companies must submit a partial removal plan to three state agencies for review. They each must determine whether the plan provides a “net benefit” that would make it worthwhile for the state to assume ownership. If they all say yes, then the operator must also get approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hertzberg’s bill streamlines approval by making the State Lands Commission the lead agency, part of efforts to make the process more efficient and attractive to operators.

“I’m told that there are three (rig conversions) sitting in the wings now, ready to go,” Hertzberg told the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. “But the process is so difficult because of the number of agencies” involved.

Hertzberg’s bill also changes the evaluation process by requiring the state to consider impacts on greenhouse gas emissions in determining net benefit.

That means regulators must consider what happens when, as Hertzberg puts it, “you have to take out a bunch more metal and send it to China.”

That provision, which changes the approval calculus, is being questioned by critics such as the Environmental Defense Center.

The center in a letter of opposition emphasized the need for a process that considered legacy pollution from “contaminated debris” left behind by rigs, as well as increased state liability and potential introduction of invasive species into local ecosystems.

Linda Krop, the center’s chief counsel, acknowledged complete removal does affect air quality, but said the process should assess a broader range of long-term issues.

“If you leave (a rig) in place, you always have a risk that something will be disrupted at this site,” Krop said. “We would rather observe some short-term impacts in exchange for long-term benefits.”

California rigs typically are massive, constructed in waters as deep as 1,000 feet. Their main role is to extract hydrocarbons from underground formations. But over their decades of operation, they also become something else, a mid-ocean oasis of protection in what is otherwise an underwater desert. Some species attach to the metal structure, and many others help turn the rig into a fish condo, full of living and hiding places. And being an oil rig, unexpectedly, can have other benefits for the local sea life.

“At least at some platforms, the density of adult fishes is higher than at virtually any reef,” said Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s not because platforms have been sprinkled with pixie dust. It’s because fishing pressure tends to be lower around platforms than around natural reefs.”

Some platforms rank among the world’s most productive fish habitats, according to recent research. Love co-authored a 2014 study that found California’s platforms produced far more fish biomass each year than such habitats as a Louisiana estuary and a natural California .

The study was limited – only a couple of dozen natural habitats had the necessary data – but it showcased the quick growth of fish populations at 16 platforms from 1995 to 2011. The rigs have become particularly attractive havens for rockfish, several species of which are endangered.

rigs to reefs

Partly that’s because of the sheer size of the rigs, which cover more of the “water column,” Love said. They can function as something akin to 700-foot-tall coral, far taller than the natural stuff that peaks at around 20 feet above the ocean floor.

For rockfish, that means a variety of habitats the serve their needs at different life stages. At midwater, the fish’s larvae drift, attaching to whatever structure they encounter. As those larvae become juveniles, the sea life around the platforms provides ample plankton to eat.

Then, as adults, fish tend to hide at the bottom of the platforms, relatively safe  from fishing. On natural reefs, fishermen target rockfish and other species, but those species are generally left alone around the rigs, turning them into “de facto marine refuges,” Love said.

“Just by chance, really, the life history of these fishes has dovetailed with this human-made structure,” Love said.

Other UC Santa Barbara studies have concluded 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 contributes disproportionately to those species’ larval production,” according to one study, which said that complete removal of rigs would harm the animals and plants that call these structures home. 

Now it will be up to the California Legislature and governor to determine whether Rigs-to-Reefs gets an overhaul, or remains a good idea that has never quite launched.

 

Jenny Cornuelle Krusoe is the executive director of AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles. Krusoe, a California native based in San Pedro, has a national reputation as a nonprofit executive and senior advisor on organizational and program design and fund development. Krusoe has been a member of the leadership team since the innovative ocean sustainability and marine science campus was first conceived.

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