RIGS TO REEFS BY JESSICA ELLISON BIO 338: FALL 2016
Introduction Since the early 1950s, off-shore oil exploration in California has led to the construction oil rig platforms off the western coast with 27 remaining today. As the wells drilled by these structures are predicted to run dry within the next twenty years, questions regarding the future of the oil infrastructure in the ocean. Several international and domestic laws require the complete removal of oil platforms and steel jackets from the ocean, with multiple requiring industry to agree to these terms before the construction of the rigs in the first place. This requires the dismantling of the above-water platform and the removal of the submerged structure from 15 feet below the substrate level along with on-shore disposition of the remaining steel frame and the recycling or reuse of these materials (Hetch). However, the high cost of decommissioning the rigs has led the oil industry to push for legislation that would allow for an exception to this complete removal rule, permitting the structures to remain as artificial reefs. This Rigs to Reefs program aims to reduce the environmental and financial impacts of rig removal by permitting the submerged infrastructure of the oil rig to remain in the water to create habitat as an artificial reef, reducing costs to oil companies and redirecting those avoided costs to fund marine conservation programs.
Although rig-to-reef programs have been adopted and set in motion in the Gulf of Mexico, the concerns of the predicted benefits and the actual outcomes of the conversion to artificial reef present in California have prevented the programs acceptance within the state. Commercial fishermen, conservationists, oil industrialists and marine recreationalists all contribute to the debate over if the programs should be permitted within the state (Rothbach). Previous oil spills and threats of future oil leakage offshore created a distrust of the oil companies by many citizens and some environmentalists, initially driving the industry to support removal of these structures.
However other conservationists had discovered the plethora of life existing near these submerged platforms and feel the habitat is too valuable to be destroyed, even if it means working alongside the oil industry. Commercial fishermen are concerned about the regulations that may restrict their use of these sensitive areas. With a majority of the oil rig platforms scheduled for decommissioning in the next twenty years, it is time for Californians to address the controversial issue while maintaining the goals of safe removal and limited impact to marine ecosystems. By weighing the advantages and disadvantages of artificial reefs and rig decommissioning, Californians will be able to make a more informed decision on whether or not to adopt a rigs to reefs program on a case-by-case basis.
Reduced costs, maintained ecosystems and protected habitat are just a few of the many benefits that could come from implementing rig to reef transition programs for retired oil extraction platforms in California. The oil and natural gas industry advocates for the approval of these programs as creating an artificial reef would greatly decrease the cost of complete decommissioning and could potentially benefit the companyâ€™s historically tarnished environmental reputation by providing an outlet for their environmental stewardship (Rothbach). The cost of total decommissioning and complete removal of the platform estimates 1.5 billion dollars while the partial removal required for a conversion to an artificial reef results in approximately 1 billion in cost savings depending on location and depth of the existing structure (Steinbach). With the AB 2503 permitting the case-by-case conversion of rig to reef, its amendments established that 50-80% of the money saved by oil companies would be diverted to fund state and regional marine conservation projects and programs. This money could potentially be used to fund further research of fish production and connectivity of these deep water systems to inform legislatures of the results of these programs. It could also be used to manage and preserve the habitats created by these submerged structures to allow for this research and recreational fishing and diving opportunities for the public. One look at these submerged steel structures and one will experience the abundance and diversity of the marine life that call these artificial habitats home. These structures increase the amount of rare deep sea reefs that naturally make up roughly four percent of the entire sea floor, providing more habitat area for marine species to survive, which could increase the amount of biomass produced at each site. Although the reefs appear to be thriving ecosystems all on all on their own, the question of production of new biomass versus
attraction of existing marine life remains highly contested within the scientific community in reference to the success of these artificial reefs. This increase in habitat leads to an increase carrying capacity of these underwater systems resulting in an increase in the species produced in these ecosystems (Macreadie et. Al). Many invertebrate species are sessile and cannot migrate away from their natural reefs in order to settle in the artificial reefs. This means that the adult and juvenile immobile invertebrates must have arrived in their floating larval stage and began to grow once they had the substrate to generate the life exhibited on these steel structures. The high concentration of invertebrate and planktonic species available in these artificial reefs provide the basis of the food chain along an optimistic outlook for the future food webs that could develop years after rig to reef transformation (Claisse et. Al). Californiaâ€™s native fish stocks are plummeting due to overfishing through out the stateâ€™s history however 32 out of 52 rockfish species have been spotted living off the artificial reefs, with the Boccaccio rockfish numbers doing particularly well in these areas (AB 2503). Scientists predicted 20% of juvenile Boccaccio are supported by these rig ecosystems accounting for twice as many fish in this artificial setting as compared to the natural areas. The rarity of deep-sea reefs and the potential for sustained biomass production and ecosystem survival contribute to the ecological advantages to converting oil rigs to reefs (Macreadie et. Al). The removal and dismantling of these rigs can cause huge amounts of biomass loss and can contribute to the spread of invasive species as they are removed from the ocean. Not only do these structures provide a vibrant habitat for the native species, they also promote the ecosystems protection by limiting access to these areas. In other countries and the Gulf of Mexico, submerged oil jackets prevent commercial fishing by providing obstructions to trawling and fishing vessels while also reinforcing barriers to marine protected areas. These benefits of underwater obstructions created by maintaining a portion of decommissioned oil rigs could be realized in California as well (Macreadie et. Al.).
Disadvantages Although there are a lot of proposed benefits to maintaining artificial reefs, the potential unforeseen consequences of rigs to reefs could impact the deep sea environment and lead to greater costs in the future once the converted reef is made the states responsibility. Many environmentalists and commercial fishermen support the full removal of the rigs due to the potential pollution and transfer of invasive species as well as the obstacles created by the submerged structures (Frumkes). Conservationists believe there is a lack of scientific certainty in the projected increase in fish stocks and tend to agree with the attraction concept rather than the production of new biomass in these artificial ecosystems. Scientific evidence is unclear as to whether the populations are produced in the artificial reef or attracted from other areas, potentially taking away from the biomass in existing natural habitats. The floating larval stages of the species commonly found in these regions could potentially be filtered from the currents before they reach their natural reef, taking away from the health of these natural ecosystems. Fish naturally are attracted to sunken objects in the oceans, they can be found surrounding large pieces of scrap metal or car batteries which raises questions about the biomass produced on the rig itself. Also, a lot of the research on the production rate in these artificial habitats was conducted on shallow reefs in less than 200 meters of water and may not indicate the same results as the deep sea rigs off the California coast.
This uncertainty of scientific evidence, the reduced cost to oil companies and the feared acceptance of the ocean as our garbage can influence many environmentalists to object to the idea of leaving the rigs in the water as they support the complete their complete removal at the responsibility of the company that put it there. Before the idea of rigs-to-reefs, companies were obligated to return the ocean floor to its original state once the life of the rig had come to an end, however the R2R program allows the money and time saved in the short term to outweigh the potential long-term costs to the state and the environment. The commercial fishing industry is also opposed to the conversion of rigs to reefs as the submerged structures provide obstacles to their ships and trawling activities. The safety hazards created by these submerged structures are invisible on the surface and could have potentially harmful effects to boaters, fishermen and divers (Frumkes). Once the oil companies decommission the rigs and partially remove part of the structure, the maintenance and liability of the artificial reef is now in the hands of the state. Although this responsibility allows states to govern and protect the artificial habitats, it also makes the state liable for the potential disintegration and longterm environmental impacts of the structure and leaves the oil companies free from the burden of fixing their mistakes. Since the rigsto-reefs program is intended to transform rigs to reefs only when it is ecologically beneficial to our native species, it is vital that scientists come to an agreement on the impacts of these artificial reefs on the natural reef system.
Solutions As stated above, the rigs to reefs program is predicted to have many environmental benefits to local ecosystems and restore fish populations while also cutting costs for oil companies and protecting sensitive marine areas. However, with the lack of consensus among the scientific community, it is hard to determine the actual outcomes of the adoption of the R2R. As an environmentalist it is easy to understand the reluctance to work alongside oil companies and support a program that seems to be subsidizing future oil extraction, but the marine life supported by these submerged rigs is undeniable, and the loss of that life as a result of complete removal of the rigs may be too great for our oceans to bare. With that being said, the legality of the rigs to reefs program was adopted in 2010 with the passing of Assembly bill 2503 providing this option based on a caseby-case basis (AB 2503). In order for a rig to be converted into an artificial reef, the operator must comply with the costs and the process of decommission defined in the law and contribute to the research of the benefits of their specific rig to reef conversion. Although the legislation outlines the process and costs of decommission it still attributes the responsibility of the aftermath of R2R to the states which could result in long term economic and environmental costs.
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California, Legislature, Assembly. Assembly Bill 2503. 2010, www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/asm/ab_25012550/ab_2503_cfa_20100412_123139_asm_comm.html. 2010 Legislature. Claisse, Jeremy T., et al. "Oil platforms off California are Among the Most Productive Marine Fish Habitats Glob." Proceedings of the National Association of Science, vol. 111, no. 43, 28 Oct. 2014. Frumkes, D. R. "The Status of the California Rigs-to-Reefs Programme and the Need to Limit Consumptive Fishing Activities." Journal of Marine Sciences, 2002. Hecht, Sean B. "California's New Rigs-to-Reefs Law." UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, 2010, www.environment.ucla.edu/reportcard/article9389.html. Macreadie, Peter I., et al. "Rigs-to-reefs: Will the deep sea benefit from artificial habitat?" The Ecological Society of America, 24 Mar. 2011, pp. 455-61, www.frontiersinecology.org. Rothbach, Dan. "Rigs-to-Reefs: Refocusing the Debate in California." Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum, vol. 17, no. 283, Spring 2007, pp. 283-95. Steinbach, George. "California Rigs to Reefs: Summary & Update." 2016 Prevention First Symposium, www.slc.ca.gov/About/Prevention_First/2016/FacilitiesCalifornia.pdf.