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Tapping Into Life After Oil

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The metal giants dotted along California’s horizon are slowing down, pumping less quantity and quality of oil, and are scheduled to come to a complete halt in the next decade. Imagine, a chain of 27 idle skeletons, some the size of the empire state building, waiting to be decommissioned or completely removed from their base on the ocean floor. But there’s a twist. These metal ‘skeletons’ are not dead at all, in fact, beneath the surface, these oil and gas platforms are teeming with life.

Since the late 1800s, when the first well was tapped,  oil and gas development has remained an infamous enemy in the eyes of many California residents and ocean conservation groups. However, with the rigs’ potential to be decommissioned in the next decade, the worlds of oil and gas development and ocean conservation meet at an important policy crossroads: safely eliminating the eye sore and liability of California’s oil and gas platforms while still protecting the valuable and fragile ecosystems that have formed on and around these structures.

Emily Callahan and I, both of us former graduate students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, investigate this question with a mission to explore, understand and try to communicate the value of a healthy relationship between offshore oil and gas development and conserving ocean resources.

Exploring these platforms off the coast of California we found ourselves transfixed by the thousands of schooling sardines, tired, but determine Garibaldi defending their newly laid clutches of eggs and jacks hustling betwixt the beams. These platforms are rich with life and completely removing just one of these structures would result in the death of an ecosystem and a home to hundreds of species and thousands of individuals.

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In addition to disrupting an ecosystem, completely removing a rig is no simple task, employing underwater explosives and toxic chemicals. Once out of the water, oil companies are faced with the even greater problem of disposal. California does not have the infrastructure in place to properly dispose of the ripped up rigs, so they would be towed to China, or India, or taken through the Panama canal to a disposal facility in the Gulf of Mexico. This transport, to whichever destination, would incur incredible carbon costs. In fact, one tanker transport to China has a carbon emissions equal to that of 50 million cars.

Rigs to Reefs provides an alternative to complete rig removal in which an oil company chooses to modify a platform so that it can continue to support marine life as an artificial reef. Through this decommissioning process, the oil well is capped and the upper 85 feet of the platform is towed, toppled in place, or removed. The oil company then donates the underwater platform to the state to manage as an artificial reef, while retaining financial liability for the oil well should there be leakage.

Oil companies have long been perceived as the enemy, while bustling ecosystems exist quietly below the surface. Converting these Rigs to Reefs provides a silver lining to the realities of offshore oil and gas development. However, there are unanswered questions, and we keep an ongoing debate on the economic, ecological and social benefits of implementing a rigs-to-reefs program on our website: Rig2ReefExploration.org.

At the heart of the debate is a paradigm that we’re going to see, more and more, as our country’s infrastructure ages. America is getting older. The momentum from the industrial revolution that spurred radical growth and development, is slowing. Neighborhoods that once flourished are abandoned, highways fall into disrepair, bridges are crumbling. The question is whether we attempt to return these pieces of civilization back into the untouched nature that once existed, or simply help the adaptive ecosystems that have sprung up in their midst to flourish.

Oil rigs are just the latest piece of aging infrastructure to force this question. What California decides to do with 27 metal giants standing abandoned off its coastline could affect how we think of environmental rehabilitation for decades to come.

Learn more about our project at Rig2ReefExploration.org or follow us on Instagram @Rig2ReefExplorers

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