Here’s a question for you: What do you do when you’ve got 4,200 obsolete oil platforms dotting the Gulf of Mexico? Answer: You sink those bad boys and let what’s left of the area’s dwindling aquatic life move in. Hopefully, they’ll bring their friends with them; eventually, the starfish and the crustaceans gentrify the neighborhood. Rents skyrocket! Biodiversity wins!
This is the idea behind the Rigs-to-Reef program, run by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). After an oil rig is done sucking oil or natural gas from beneath the sea, it is sunk to the ocean floor where it becomes the equivalent of a suburban development for local aquatic life. The tiny crustaceans that make up a reef clamor to the rusty metal structure and die, providing a nice foundation for all the other creatures looking for a new home. Bikini Bottom Heights, now leasing! If you lived here, you’d be home by now.
This is a great video about the process from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, with stunningly beautiful photography. Ignore the fact that it’s sponsored by Shell:
Ships have been scuttled for centuries to become reefs, so it seems natural that the other giant metal structures of the sea would follow suit. The first rig-to-reef conversion took place in 1979, when Exxon towed a rig from Louisiana to Florida. Then in 1984 the National Fishing Enhancement Act (NFEA) begat the National Artificial Reef Plan. The Rigs-to-Reefs program was later formally developed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) under the Department of the Interior. The bureau does not create the reefs, it only makes sure that the rigs are decommissioned properly. It is up to the rig’s operator along with state and other federal agencies to carry out the transition. States with artificial reef plans include Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and California. The Louisiana Artificial Reef Program (LARP), launched in 1998, is the largest rigs-to-reef program in the world and has created 83 artificial reefs with 120 decommissioned rigs.
Oil companies and rig operators love the program, because it saves them money. Even when rigs are towed to a different area after decommissioning, it is still cheaper than hauling it back to shore and recycling it. Recreational divers love the reefs, as do local businesses who cater to them. The reefs are fertile ground for commercial fishermen too. It seems that everyone wins.
So who could possibly complain that this is a bad thing? A buncha people. In California, where there’s a rigs-to-reef program on the books, not one rig has been reefed yet. Representatives of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara argue that oil platforms should be completely removed because they could damage anchors or leech chemicals into the water. Shrimpers say that reefs interfere with their net fishing. Greenpeace argues that they should be banned simply because it is a form of dumping that saves the oil companies money, which only encourages more drilling.
There are about 420 artificial oil rig reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for about 10 percent of the total number of old oil rigs in the area. The fact that there are 4,200 old oil platforms in the Gulf is pretty astonishing. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico has the largest concentration of offshore oil platforms in the world, and this fact alone makes it the largest artificial reef complex in the world. Even when the rigs are in operation they provide a good habitat. According to Quenton Dokken, CEO of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, the 3,000 operating rigs produce “biological biomass and bio-diversity. . . . These towers of life provide a home for sponges, hydroids, mollusks and fishes of every description. A cornucopia of life.”
Reefs are more than a playground for scuba divers and cute fish; they are crucial underwater ecosystems are the “rainforests of the sea.” They are integral to the health of our oceans because of their vast biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide. But the world’s coral reefs are dying due to climate change. The temperature sweet spot that allows reef life to thrive is narrow. Water is becoming too warm, too acidic, too polluted to support the diversity they once had. Coral is dying. Saving the seas means saving the reefs.
When Big Oil agrees with a number of well-respected conservation groups, the result is cognitive dissonance. No one wants to give oil companies a free pass to leave their junk in the ocean, but everyone wants to see the fishes happy. A well-reasoned middle position comes from researchers Peter Macreadie, Ashley Fowler, and David Booth, whose study Rigs-to-Reefs: Will the Deep Sea Benefit from Artificial Habitat? treads a comfortable middle ground by acknowledging the various benefits of reefed rigs in shallow waters. But they are cautious about reefed rigs in deeper waters and suggest ways to minimize possible damages. This is science I can get behind, and so can a host of other researchers, who have cited the article in their own research on oil rig reefs. Any scuba divers out there? You might want to slip on your wetsuit and do your own research.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.