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Feature Article: Oil Rigs Reefs

Retired California oil rigs could become artificial reefs

Special to Western Outdoor NewsPublished: Jun 19, 2019

SACRAMENTO — 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 the Santa Barbara coast 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 near the end of their working lives, or convert the underwater sections into permanent artificial reefs for marine life.


oilrigs

OIL RIG STRUCTURES provide excellent habitat for fish species that congregate around the footings and support beams for protection and food sources.


Here and elsewhere, many thousands of fish 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 man-made reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, Brunei and Malaysia.


Californians prize their spectacular coastline , and there are disagreements over the rigs-to-reefs concept . Some 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 .


Based on historical studies of the history of rigs-to-reefs conversions, it was concluded 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.


Reefing oil rigs clearly benefits oil companies, but scientists say it’s also good for marine life.


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 laws require energy companies to decommission them. This usually means completely removing the platform and submerged supporting structures 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 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 fish are also abundant. In some years, clouds of hundreds of thousands of juvenile rockfishes school in the depths below operating oil platforms.


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.


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 reconsider the issue and decide the fate of an unintended but biologically important resource.




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