Retired Oil Rigs off the California Coast Could Find New Lives as Artificial Reefs
By Ann Scarborough Bull and Milton Love
Offshore oil and gas drilling has been a contentious issue in California for 50 years, ever since a rig ruptured and spilled 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil off Santa Barbara in 1969. Today it's spurring a new debate: whether to completely dismantle 27 oil and gas platforms scattered along the southern California coast as they end their working lives, or convert the underwater sections into permanent artificial reefs for marine life.
We know that here and elsewhere, many thousands of fishes and millions of invertebrates use offshore rigs as marine habitat. Working with state fisheries agencies, energy companies have converted decommissioned oil and gas platforms into manmade reefs in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, Brunei and Malaysia.
Californians prize their spectacular coastline, and there are disagreements over the rigs-to-reefs concept. Some conservation groups assert that abandoned oil rigs could release toxic chemicals into the water and create underwater hazards. In contrast, supporters say the submerged sections have become productive reefs that should be left in place.
We are a former research scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior and a scholar focusing on the fishes of the Pacific coast. In a recent study, we reviewed the history of rigs-to-reefs conversions and decades of published scientific research monitoring the effects of these projects. Based on this record, we conclude that reefing the habitat under decommissioned oil and gas platforms is a viable option for California. It also could serve as a model for decommissioning some of the 7,500 other offshore platforms operating around the world.
Unplanned Underwater Communities
Offshore petroleum platforms are designed to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, but not to be permanent. When they reach the end of their useful lives, typically after about 25 to 50 years of operation, federal and state law require energy companies to decommission them.
This usually means completely removing the platform and submerged supporting structure and returning the seafloor to an unobstructed condition. Only in certain cases does any part of the platform remain.
These rigs weren't designed with the intent of creating reefs, but their underwater steel pipe support systems – called "jackets" in the oil business – attract vast numbers of invertebrates that settle on them. In turn, these creatures attract diverse fish species. Together these colonies create reef systems that can resist rusting away for several hundred years.
Off California, a myriad of invertebrates coat each platform jacket. Millions of mussels, sea stars and brightly colored anemones fight for space, creating a quilt of patterns and textures. Both large and small fishes are also abundant. In some years, clouds of hundreds of thousands of juvenile rockfishes school in the depths below operating oil platforms.
Creating New Habitat
Humans have sought to enhance fisheries with artificial reefs for centuries, using materials ranging from wood, rock and concrete to decommissioned ships. The idea of reefing platform jackets developed after oil and gas companies started building platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1940s. Those steel-pipe structures provided rock-hard habitat for reef fishes on an otherwise smooth seafloor, and became highly popular fishing destinations.
Installing thousands of platforms catalyzed a basin-wide increase in available reef fish species, such as the highly prized red snapper. Reef fishes moved into areas where they had previously been scarce due to a lack of hard habitat.
A marine biologist surveys fishes living at Platform A, Santa Barbara Channel, Calif.
Desmond Ho, CC BY-ND
In the mid-1980s Louisiana legislated the first U.S. reefing option for its offshore waters. This program was designed to take advantage of fishing opportunities provided by obsolete platforms and encourage energy companies to convert decommissioned platforms into reefs. Since then, over 500 submerged jackets in the Gulf, from Texas to Alabama, have been adapted into state artificial reef programs.
Platforms generally consist of two distinct parts: the topside, or operational facilities seen above water, and the substructure, or parts below the water. To make a reef, energy companies completely remove the topside and transfer it to shore for recycling or partial reuse. In the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, they may tow the underwater jacket to a new location; topple it onto the seabed; or cut off the top portion and place it on the seabed next to the lower portion.
California law only allows partial removal, or cutting off of the top portion. That way the underwater jacket remains intact and in place, which is the least destructive method for the reef.
Helping or Hurting Sea Life?
Across the Gulf of Mexico, reefed oil platforms have significantly increased the amount of available reef fish. Many have become popular fishing and scuba diving sites. In California most operating platforms are not fished, so they have functioned for decades as de facto Marine Protected Areas, providing ecological benefits for severely overfished species.
For example, scientists have found greater numbers of adult fish of some species, such as cowcod and bocaccio rockfishes, under platforms than on natural reefs. More adults capable of spawning makes it likely that more larvae will be released into the ecosystem from species under platforms than from smaller numbers on nearby natural areas that are fished.
Although some platforms have been installed and removed off of southern California, none have been reefed. Discussion of reefing, supported by many years of scientific studies in California waters, led to enactment of the 2010 Marine Resources Legacy Act, which authorized the rigs-to-reefs concept. Now Platform Holly in state waters and Platforms Grace, Gail, Hermosa, Hildago and Harvest in federal waters are undergoing initial steps for decommissioning.
Platform Holly in California's Santa Barbara Channel is one of the rigs scheduled for near-term decommissioning.
State Lands Commission via AP
This process is expensive, technically complex and lengthy. Because it requires intricate planning, oil companies are likely to consider decommissioning more platforms while they are already organizing equipment, engineering and infrastructure acquisition for the current set. Although industry will save money if a platform is reefed, the savings must be shared with the state. Reefing thus could generate funds for other marine conservation efforts.
Either total or partial decommissioning will have many environmental and socioeconomic impacts, both positive and negative. Californians have not had an opportunity to consider what should happen to decommissioned oil platforms since the mid-1990s. Now citizens have an opportunity to consider the issues again, and decide the fate of an unintended but biologically important resource.
Ann Scarborough Bull is a visiting researcher at the Marine Science institute, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Milton Love is a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Disclosure statement: Ann Scarborough Bull received funding for the study described in this article from ExxonMobil Upstream Research. Milton Love received research funding for the study described in this article from ExxonMobil Upstream Research, and has received grants from numerous government agencies and foundations.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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