New life for old offshore rigs?

A diver examines sea life beneath an offshore oil-rig platform along the California coast.

What happens when the 27 oil rigs off the Southern California coast reach the end of their 30- to 50-year lifespans?

The nonprofit Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach released a report Wednesday, March 4, endorsing that the rigs be preserved as natural habitats for sea life in the form of artificial reefs rather than dismembered.

“Options range from full removal to partially removing the upper portions of a platform jacket and converting the remaining structure to an artificial reef,” Dr. Sylvia Earle of the National Geographic Society states in the report. “The platforms could also be allowed to remain in place and repurposed for other uses such as aquaculture facilities, marine research centers or renewable-energy production facilities.”

Edited by Dr. Jerry Schubel, the Aquarium’s president and CEO, the report summarizes the findings of an Offshore Oil Platform Decommissioning Forum held at the Aquarium over three days in January with dozens of researchers, consultants and representatives of environmental groups and government agencies.

A few of those speakers were on hand Wednesday at an Aquarium press conference for the report’s release, including John B. Smith, a consultant on offshore oil-rig decommissioning, who cited a gap in California law that prevented the rigs being legally converted to artificial reefs.

Smith said Federal law requires that 23 of the 27 platforms that are in Federal waters be removed within one year after their leases terminate unless California institutes a formal Artificial Reef Program, which it currently does not have.

Schubel added that to do that, the State would need to amend a 2010 law— AB 2503: The California Marine Resources Legacy Act— by instituting an Artificial Reef Program that covers liability for the platforms.

“If California were not to amend AB 2503, the only option we would have for these platforms in Federal waters would be full removal,” Schubel said.

Besides loss of sea-life habitats, removing all platforms would cost a total of $1.5 billion and come with huge engineering, environmental and material-disposal challenges since some of them rival the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building in length, Smith said.

However, according to AB 2503, if only the top part of a rig— equivalent to 10% to 40% of a structure— were removed, leaving the remainder underwater, then the owner of the structure would give the State 80% of the cost savings, which Smith said may be as much as $75 million. The State would deposit 85% of those savings in the California Endowment for Marine Preservation.

One of the biggest obstacles to amending the Act may be the question of who assumes liability— the oil-rig company or the State, Smith said.

Meanwhile, platform decommissioning will begin in five or six years, with 5 to 10 rigs likely to be decommissioned by 2030, he said.

Half of the rigs are off the coast of Santa Barbara County. The four off the coast of Long Beach are still productive with no plans for decommissioning in the near future, Smith said.

Dr. Ann Bull, a marine-science researcher at UC Santa Barbara, and Dr. Jeremy Claise, a marine ecologist at Cal Poly Pomona, described the extensive amount of sea life that has developed in and around the oil-rig bases that would be lost if the rigs were taken down.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Courtesy Jeremy Claise” align=”center” lightbox=”on” captionsrc=”custom” caption=”Images of sea life beneath offshore oil rigs presented by Dr. Jeremy Claise during a press conference at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach on March 4.” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Bull said that in her 30 years studying sea life under platforms, she and her fellow researchers observed 1.5 million fish from over 100 species. She noted that 90% were rockfish, the dominant species in reefs from Alaska to Baja California.

“These structures, in my mind, are novel ecosystems,” Bull said. “When you think about the underwater structure and the open complexity of the platforms, you realize that this [is] the relationship that should occur between a reef fish and a structure acting as a reef.”

Bull added that the platforms are encrusted with a diverse array of invertebrate species, including mussels, that people have harvested for bait and human consumption. Though the platforms off of Santa Barbara are not currently fished, Long Beach “party boats” often fish between oil-rig platforms, she said.

The rockfish that are born and develop around the platform grow as well or better than their natural-reef counterparts, Bull said. She also said they were no more contaminated with heavy metals than their shoreline cousins.

Claise added that the fish among the platforms are also 27 times as productive on average as those in natural rocky reefs and among the most productive globally because the rigs create a “nursery effect” with their unique vertical structures stretching from seafloor to the water’s surface.

“You get a lot of different types of habitats throughout the water column,” Claise said, adding that partial removal of the top part of a rig’s structure wouldn’t reduce the numbers of young fish arriving to the remaining lower portion.

Schubel reiterated that unless California amends AB 2503 by adopting a formal Artificial Reef Program, these productive ecosystems would start being eliminated in as soon as 5 years. He said the Aquarium will be distributing the report to members of the State legislature, hoping someone takes up the cause.

“It’s very clear that over the decades, these platforms have become magnets and magnifiers for fish productivity and also for other forms of sea life,” Schubel said. “Unless the Act is amended, the only option we have is to remove them entirely.”


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