Beneath California's Waters, Marine Life Flourishes on Old Oil Rigs

Two So-Cal scientists/divers are going deep to protect fragile underwater ecosystems with Rigs-to-Reefs.

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Jun 2 2017, 3:17pm

Rigs-to-Reefs (RTR) is the practice of turning decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs into artificial reefs, with the hope of reintegrating them into fragile ecosystems. When wells dry up, these oil platforms have the potential to provide a unique environmental benefit not usually associated with offshore oil drilling.

Waters off the coast of California are dotted with dozens of these rigs, and what to do with them is a contentious public policy issue. It's true they bring in over $2 billion in annual oil revenue to the state of California, but many coastal residents (and not just environmentalists) insist that these platforms are an unwelcome eyesore. What's worse: they could be a troubling liability should there ever be an oil spill. Many of the rigs will be drying up in the near future, and policy makers are actively debating their fate. Back in 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill supporting the program, but it faced immediate resistance from local environmental groups concerned that it was to good of a deal for energy companies.

Two enterprising divers in Southern California have taken a practical approach to the issue through the Rigs to Reefs Explorers initiative. Founded by Oceanographer Amber Jackson and marine conservation biologist Emily Callahan, the program uses stunning visuals to bring much-needed attention to the Rigs-to-Reefs program. Additionally, the two scientists are doing extensive research on the ecological and advocacy issues surrounding the rigs and building up a compelling case.

VICE Impact caught up with Rigs to Reefs on the phone from their hella chill home base of San Diego, California.

June is World Oceans Month and VICE Impact will be regularly featuring content related to protecting the world's oceans and seas. And be sure to check-out the #CleanSeasPhoto challenge for easy ways you can be involved. Our oceans need help.

How did Rigs to Reefs come together?

Amber Jackson: Emily and I were both getting our Masters in marine biodiversity and conservation, and we decided look at California's law that allows its 27 offshore oil and gas platforms to be repurposed into reefs. It was signed in 2010 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but none of the platforms have been reefed. So we looked at the economic, ecological, and social issues behind this rigs to reef program, and see if it's truly a feasible idea for California.

Is it feasible?

Emily Callahan: In our opinion, yes. But every platform needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis depending on where they're located, or their size, or how old they are, and so on.

What would it take to actually start reefing those rigs?

AJ: Some of the biggest hurdles that need to be overcome before we could reef in California include the legislation.

As it currently stands, the liability for the structure is not designated to a certain entity. So in the Gulf of Mexico, where they've been reefing successfully for over 30 years, they specifically designate that the liability for those structures go to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to be managed as an artificial reef. The well itself, after it's sealed and capped, is always the liability of the oil company. The platform structure, which would house the reef, is something that needs to have its liability designated and figured out in California.

The other thing to adjust in the legislation is the donation rate. That's when an oil platform is decommissioned in the traditional sense, the well is sealed and capped, and the structure is completely removed from the seafloor. They go below the mud-line and remove the entire thing. That process can be extremely expensive -- anywhere between $2-to-$30 billion. But if you reef a structure you're leaving even just a portion of that structure in place. That saves an oil company a lot of money.

As the reef law stands in the Gulf of Mexico, just about 50 percent of that savings will go to the state to help fund and manage their artificial reefing programs, but also put some of that money towards environmental grants or funding the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The other 50 percent goes to the oil companies. It's a win-win financially. But in California, that donation rate is not fifty-fifty. It's currently something like 65 percent going to the state and only 35 percent going to the oil companies. So the oil companies aren't going to be incentivized to participate if they don't have an equal share or see the same kind profit the state gets.

EC: That's where you have to look at this issue and say, well if we're working with oil companies and the government and environmental groups and researchers you really have to create a program that can be win-win for all involved.

How do you see your average beachgoer getting involved?

AJ: In the Gulf of Mexico, Rigs to Reefs is accepted because they have thousands of oil platforms and the public really understands the program. In California, we have 27 rigs, and people aren't familiar with them. They just think of oil spills. A lot of people in Santa Barbara or Los Angeles can see those oil platforms right from their beach chair. We need to get people to understand that California has some of the most thriving and productive ecosystems in the world underneath them. It would be a shame to see them removed. So a lot of what we're doing is to try to educate the public and encourage people to think about our resources in a totally different way.

Once you start to understand the concept then people should definitely reach out to local senators or congressman to get the word out.

EC: I'd want to encourage people to think outside the box. Traditionally, governments and management groups often have an us-against-them mindset. It's environmental groups versus the oil companies. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. The future of ocean conservation is going to have to involve us working closely with industrial groups to find solutions that benefit the environment.