Oil companies and environmentalists are popularly – albeit inaccurately – perceived as natural enemies by the general public. But, the marine life dwelling offshore California and other oil-producing locales knows nothing of this supposed antagonism. All they know are the drilling rigs where they thrive.
“They’re incredibly valuable ecologically.”
That’s Emily Callahan, a marine conservation biologist and oil and gas consultant and explorer. She, along with oceanographer and environmental scientist Amber Jackson, runs Blue Latitudes, a company of marine scientists, communication specialists, software developers and designers who specialize in ecological solutions for offshore structures, namely “Rigs-to-Reefs” (R2R).
One of their allies: the oil and gas industry itself.
But more on that in a moment.
Blue Latitudes offers opportunities and solutions to oil and gas operators to modify a platform to continue to support marine life as an artificial reef, rather than being ripped from the ocean floor, which can be dangerous and expensive.
“The research has shown that it’s beneficial in California,” said Callahan about R2R. “We’ve also spoken with other scientists in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico who have conducted similar studies on these platforms and they found similar results.”
Benefits of R2R
Specifically, according to Jackson and Callahan, R2R:
- Presents a cost-savings compared to full removal and onshore disposal.
- Creates marine habitat with the potential to enhance depleted fish stocks in the regions.
- Provides socio-economic benefits through enhanced fishing and utilization by recreational user groups.
Naturally, members of the oil and gas industry – for reasons both altruistic and economic – support such efforts.
“It’s been very interesting, because we’ve done a lot of work in support of these platforms, but the oil companies are very aggressive and want the program to happen because it saves them money. They don’t need, for instance, to invest in technology in having to pull them out of the water,” said Callahan.
The cost of that technology can be substantial, because no two platforms are constructed identically – not to mention the potential damage to existing ecosystems in the area – so it is cheaper for the rigs to be left where they are.
The pushback, at the moment, is from the public.
“The law doesn’t say the rigs have to stay there. The companies have the option to remove them, but the status quo is not something the public sees in the same way,” said Callahan.
She believes the criticism, though, comes from a lack of understanding among the public.
“And why would they see the value of these reefs, why should they? The work is being done below the platforms,” she added.
While Callahan and Jackson are convinced of the benefits of leaving the rigs where they are, there is plenty of debate on the subject among scientists and academia as well as among the public.
To that point, Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has done much research on the topic, said there isn’t just one issue at stake.
“That’s a hard one to answer. Ultimately, the question is what roles do the platforms off California play as habitats for sea life? Right now, there is substantial evidence that these structures often harbor large numbers of both adult and juvenile fishes and that they are more productive as fish habitats than many, if not most, natural structures,” he said.
Another issue is what to do with the platforms during decommissioning, he added.
“Some folks would view my results as suggesting that platforms are just great big reefs and thus should be left at least partially in place after they are decommissioned. Some dislike the oil industry and dislike anything artificial in the ocean and thus don’t care one way or another how these platforms are functioning as sea life habitat,” Love continued.
This last point is one backed up by Callahan.
“People are very scared of oil and they associate oil platforms with oil spills and want to see them gone,” she said.
There are oil platforms and then there are oil platforms.
“In the Gulf of Mexico, there are thousands of them there, there’s a revenue flow, lots of jobs associated with them, but in California, there are only 27,” said Jackson. “Not a lot of jobs, people don’t have access to the platforms and when you talk to most people opposed, they bring up the 1969 Santa Monica oil spill.”
And, of course, there’s the issue of money.
“The law, as it stands, says that oil companies have to donate 55 percent of their cost savings to the state in an endowment for marine preservation,” she said.
This figure, according to present law, goes up as the years go on. After 2017, it increases to 65 percent, then five years later, it goes to 85 percent of costs determined by a third-party that comes in to validate the cost of leaving the rigs in place.
If 23 of the deeper platforms were decommissioned and left, Jackson said it would mean around $700 million to the state.
“The public reception views this as ‘the oil companies are winning,’” she said.
The value is placed on the rigs by third parties, she said, to ensure objectivity before payments are scheduled. The companies, for their part, don’t want to be seen going against public perception, and don’t want to get involved in “green washing” by pushing too hard, Jackson said, so they’re going slowly.
As for the environmental concerns about the actual rigs once they’re left, Callahan said the outlook is favorable.
“The truth is we don’t know if these platforms are going to last a thousand years or what they’re going to look like. We do know they were engineered to stand and to stay standing, versus other forms of artificial reefs. I mean, they have run subway cars off the coast of New York, toilets off the coast of Florida, trying to cultivate life. And those things were not designed to be put in the ocean,” she said.
Aside from some members of the public, the biggest detractors are trawl fisherman – those who use fishing nets and pull them along the bottom of the sea or in mid-water at a specified depth.
“These trawl permits pass on from generation to generation, so those who have had their area interrupted by these oil platforms want to see these platforms completely being taken out so they can have their historic fishing grounds restored,” said Callahan.
Changes and Expansion
There are legislative changes, both in the air and underwater, in the California Legislature that will clarify many of these concerns, including:
- Confirmation that liability would go to the state or a wildlife agency after decommission, while the petroleum company would forever retain liability on the well itself.
- Changing the cost savings to a set fee from the outset.
If the research continues to validate it, both Callahan and Jackson hope to expand R2R to places like the North Sea, Australia, the Indian Ocean and Malaysia.
They also want to emphasize they are not in favor of more offshore drilling, but support the drilling already completed being put to good use.
“We see this as a win-win,” said Jackson. “Emily and I both drive cars, we both use plastics, so this is just a positive use of the oil platform structure that actually helps the environment and is sort of a silver lining to offshore oil and gas development.”