Call grows for turning California oil platforms into offshore reefs

Several 27 offshore oil platforms in California are projected to close by 2055, and some have already been permanently shut down, but the question of what to do with the mammoth buildings after they’re no longer in use looms large.

Taking them apart and bringing them to shore is fraught with difficulties. For a project that might cost as much as $2 billion to dismantle, there isn’t a clear framework in place.

It would also be necessary to remove the thriving marine ecosystem that has grown up around their submerged bases. To protect and develop the artificial reef environment, a rising movement is underway to tip the wells over after they have been filled. This, of course, comes with its own set of substantial challenges.

As a result of this strategy, which was approved by state law in 2010, oil corporations would save money, the state would get more than $500 million in revenue, and ecologically problematic platforms might become ecotourism hotbeds.

While speaking at a Long Beach-area Aquarium of the Pacific lecture on March 2, marine biologist Amber Sparks remarked, “All the (California) platforms have blooming underwater eco-systems.

In terms of marine life, “there’s a lot of real estates; a lot of nooks and crannies.” National Academy of Sciences scientists have discovered that California’s platforms are some of the most productive marine environments in the world.

Co-president of the Blue Latitudes Foundation, a non-profit organization located in San Diego, Sparks aims to connect business and government to ocean conservation.

As an example, “Rigs-to-reefs is a great one,” she remarked.

Unexplored territory

More than 500 derelict oil platforms have been transformed into full-time artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico during the last 30 years. Despite the somewhat barren, sandy bottom ecology, the rigs’ habitat potential has been boldly shown, creating hundreds of good places for marine life.

To locate anything like this, however, the biggest offshore rigs in California may be found, providing a variety of unique ecosystems across the platform base. 1,200 feet below the surface, the deepest dives.

There are a lot of strawberry anemones in shallow water. Sea lions rest and graze farther down in the structure, where they dine on tiny fish. According to a Blue Latitudes graphic, more than 79 kinds of fish may be found in the midwaters of the platforms.

A little down in the food chain, overfished fish like rockfish and sardines may reach maturity in higher numbers than they can on natural reefs now. Rock scallop and mussel shell mounds on the sea bottom serve as a nursery for young fish.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2010 bill, AB 2503, provides a legal pathway for the conversion of platforms into permanent reefs, a procedure that often entails tossing the buildings on their sides or chopping off the topmost portions in order to place them on the ocean bottom. There must be at least 85 feet of depth in the artificial reefs for ocean boats to pass through.

The lack of start-up finance and liability obligation, which would fall to either the state or the platform owner, are two difficulties preventing implementation.

There is “no one standing forward to accept that obligation,” Sparks said.

Not yet, at any rate.

Incentives galore

The moment has come for California’s outdated platforms to be dismantled or tipped over. Sixteen platforms in state and federal seas, including three that have been temporarily shut down due to the oil disaster in Huntington Beach last October, are not now operational.

Decommissioning of the platforms, including plugging the wells and dealing with the structures themselves, has begun or will begin soon on at least eight of those platforms, according to John B. Smith, an offshore oil consultant who previously worked with the Washington, D.C., agency that oversees oil leases in federal waters.

In addition to the fact that the platforms are old, California’s offshore oil output is in decline. There were 72 million barrels a year produced from government platforms in 1995. According to Smith’s study of government statistics, yearly output had dropped to barely 4.5 million barrels by 2019.

For the most part, he attributed this to “depleted reservoirs,” which are particularly prevalent in older institutions.

The last time a platform was disassembled in the state was more than 25 years ago, and the state lacks the necessary equipment and infrastructure to deconstruct them, transport them to shore, and recycle or otherwise dispose of the vast remnants. In addition, dismantling rigs of this size in California’s seas, where the largest weighs 86,000 tonnes, has never been done before.

Instead of bringing structures to shore, there are advantages for both platform owners and the state to use a rig-to-reef approach. Removing all 23 platforms in federal waters is estimated to cost $1.6 billion, but Smith says it may cost twice that much.

The owners might save money by converting the constructions into reefs and so halving the cost. According to Sparks, the state will get anywhere from $650 million to $850 million in savings under the 2010 statute.

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