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.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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