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Rigs-to-Reefs: Giving Oil Platforms a Second Life for Conservation

Projects to convert retired oil rigs into artificial reefs are controversial. But advocates and consultants Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson argue this practice provides valuable habitat at a time when natural coral reefs are disappearing.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
After they stop pumping, oil rigs like this one in Borneo can act as long-term underwater reefs. Now it is an eco-resort.Courtesy of Matador Network

Offshore oil rigs are supported on steel and concrete structures that extend thousands of feet to the ocean floor. Even as rigs pump fossil fuels, they’re also colonized by mussels, barnacles, rockfish and other species, becoming artificial reefs.

Typically when wells run dry, rigs are dismantled, but Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson argue that more retired oil infrastructure should remain in place permanently, as habitat. Jackson and Callahan met while studying at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and went on to co-found the firm Blue Latitudes, which has consulted on several rigs-to-reefs projects around the world. “These structures are already in the environment. Why get rid of this amazing ecosystem that’s already there?” Jackson said.

This view is controversial. Greenpeace, for example, has argued that rigs-to-reef projects subsidize the fossil fuel industry by reducing costs to dismantle drilling platforms. Environmental groups are also concerned that toxic debris may remain in the ocean and that rigs encourage overfishing.

Jackson and Callahan also explore habitats created by these artificial reefs and recently released a short documentary about a retired rig off the island of Borneo that is now an eco-resort. At the hotel, guests stay on the deck and dive on the reef beneath. It’s the first project of its kind, Callahan said, and an example of creative thinking about how to reuse rigs.

Still, rigs-to-reef projects have yet to take off outside of the United States, where 532 retired rigs are now used as reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Jackson and Callahan are also working to turn decommissioned rigs off California into permanent reefs.

Oceans Deeply spoke with Callahan and Jackson about the pros and cons of rigs-to-reef projects and about their new film.

Oceans Deeply: Not every rig can become a reef or a hotel. What makes a rig a good candidate for reefing?

Emily Callahan: Some of the things that they look at on these platforms to make sure it’s a good candidate are, where is it placed? For example, if you place it where there’s a lot of boats passing overhead, you could cause a collision or gear entanglement.

There could be concerns about the structural integrity of the platform itself. There’s a lot of different constituencies and you want to make sure, like any reef that you’re constructing, that’s actually going to provide good habitat for fish.

Oceans Deeply: How do these artificial reefs compare to their non-artificial counterparts?

Converted rigs can be home to large schools of fish. (Courtesy of Matador Network)

Amber Jackson: That’s a good question. So there’s actually a paper which says that the platforms off the coast of California are some of the most productive ecosystems on this planet. More productive than marine estuaries, more productive than natural coral reefs, are these oil platforms.

You get all these scallops and mussels, and when those mussels die, they fall to the base of the platforms, forming enormous shell mountains where rockfish and other fish come and make their nursery grounds and lay their eggs there. When they hatch, they move up to the top of the platform and just complete that whole cycle of life – these species are spawning, breeding, growing to maturity on the entirety of the structure.

Oceans Deeply: Why did you film the Borneo reef?

Large fish enjoy the artificial reef habitat. Large fish enjoy the artificial reef habitat. (Scott Sporleder/Matador Network)

Jackson: We realized that it was something that deserved an entire documentary because it was a story that had never been told. These [converted] offshore platforms are in every ocean and can really inspire people to think differently about the resources that we have. Whether that means reefing them or turning them into an eco-tourism resort, most of them are already hosting a large vibrant reef community. We thought it would be a great way to talk about restructuring and get people excited about it, and also get an understanding of its global implications, not just something that’s impacting us in California or here in the U.S. It’s going to be a challenge that every nation deals with.

Oceans Deeply: One concern is that these projects let oil companies off the hook when it comes to properly decommissioning rigs and cleaning up toxic chemicals and hazardous debris.

Structures like these can be a building block of artificial reefs. (Scott Sporleder/Matador Network)

Jackson: In New York, they’re using subway cars to create an artificial reef. Here in San Diego, it’s retired naval ships. They throw tires in the ocean to try and create reefs. We’re always trying to create an artificial reef. But what’s unique about these platforms is that they’re one of the few materials that were designed to go into the ocean and last.

Yes, [the rigs] are slowly corroding like anything that’s unnatural and placed in the ocean. However, what’s unique is that all the organisms that grow on these structures actually slow the rate of corrosion because they’re completely covering the platforms. The levels of metals and other nutrients going into the water column are not higher than background level.

Oceans Deeply: There’s also some evidence that the rigs themselves don’t so much increase the populations of fish, but aggregate them in one spot, which can lead to overfishing. How do you address those concerns?

In Borneo, artificial reefs can be home to a surprising number of tropical species. (Scott Sporleder/Matador Network)

Jackson: That’s the age-old question of artificial reefs around the world – are they truly producing life or are they merely attracting it?

They’ve done research on this in California over the past 30 years and the same in the Gulf of Mexico. And what they found is that these structures are producing life. They’re not merely a place for fish to come and aggregate. So that’s a great thing because that means that these are being sources of life and contributing to the ecosystem, especially when so many of our nearshore resources are being depleted by runoff, overpollution and overfishing.

Oceans Deeply: Why do you feel so strongly about the need to convert these rigs into artificial reefs?

Callahan: The reality is, we all use plastic. We all drive our cars. We all, in some way, utilize oil and gas. We all have some sort of responsibility for these structures and the alternative to reefing is to completely remove the oil platform structure. You remove all of the reefs and fish life that grows there, which is unfortunate especially considering the fact that we’re losing so many of our natural reefs every single day.

If there’s something out in the ocean that’s demonstrated to be producing fish life and functioning the way a reef should, it’s a shame to say that we would pull it out. What Amber and I believe so strongly in, is the fact that our oceans are powerful and resilient. They’ve started colonizing these structures, utilizing these structures, and I think we need to start to think more creatively about repurposing what we installed, to continue to preserve that marine life. It’d be a shame to pull it out.

Correction: This piece originally misstated the last names of Amber Jackson and Emily Callahan by reversing them. We regret the error. 

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