Will the Rigs to Reefs Movement Save or Destroy California’s Coast?

Halley Sutton

Imagine a vibrant, colorful reef under the water. Leafy green seaweed hides orange and violet fish from view. A teal and neon-yellow fish cuddles up to the fiery orange of a vertical reef, covered in barnacles. Underneath the water, it looks like paradise to the untrained eye. But when you surface, you realize the lively vertical orange reef is actually the base of an oil rig platform.

The idea behind rigs to reefs is nothing new. In 1984—after a push from coastal states—the U.S. government passed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, paving the way for a National Artificial Reef Plan. With the establishment of a reef-permitting system, decommissioned oil platforms could be transformed into artificial reefs by removing the top of the platform to a depth of 85 feet and either leaving the bottom portion of the rig (which can extend thousands of feet into the ocean floor) in place or moving it to a hospitable area, where marine life needs an artificial reef to support life. As of 2018, there were more than 7,500 active and decommissioned oil and gas platforms installed in oceans around the world. More than 500 of those have been turned into reefs in the outlying parts of the United States.

In 2010, California passed Assembly Bill 2503, allowing for decommissioned oil rigs to be turned into reefs along the coast in the state. The California law provides more stringent guidelines than the National Artificial Reef Plan and allows for the removal of the top of the rig (for safety and boat navigation reasons), with the remainder of the structure to be left in place—after it has been determined, through ecological surveys, that the decommissioned rig will pose no threat to the environment and that the platform provides benefits to the species of fish and other aquatic life nearby. So far, no decommissioned oil rigs have actually been turned into reefs in California, despite successful conversions in areas along the coastal United States such as the Gulf of Mexico.

On the one hand, preserving marine life is an argument it’s hard not to be in favor of. But there are very real concerns posed with transforming the rigs into reefs in the state of California—concerns that could have repercussions for decades to come. Instead, the state has become something of a battleground for the opposing sides of the rigs to reefs debate—and now, we’re running out of time to decide the issue, no matter what we do.

The value of turning rigs to reefs

Two of the major proponents for the rigs to reefs movement in California are Amber Jackson and Emily Hazelwood, co-founders of Blue Latitudes, a women-owned marine environmental consulting agency. Hazelwood was first drawn to the rigs to reefs movement while working as a cleanup volunteer during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I was from the East Coast and had never seen an oil platform,” Hazelwood says. “I had no idea they could be potential hotspots for marine life.” With most commercial fishing operations shut down in the Gulf after the Deep Water Horizon spill, local fishermen were hired to drive volunteers around cleanup sites. Hazelwood overheard conversations about how phenomenal the fishing was around the oil platforms and soon realized the potential under the sea.

Hazelwood and Jackson, who are listed on the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy section, founded Blue Latitudes with a mission of finding ways to intersect industry and ecology, particularly around offshore oil platforms.

“When most people think of offshore oil platforms, it’s more likely they think of them as an eyesore or a potential source of pollution [than as a reef],” Hazelwood says. To spread awareness, the duo made a short film, “Rigs 2 Reefs: Transecting Borneo,” about how the transformation of a decommissioned oil rig off the coast of the island (located in the Malay Archipelago) has provided both environmental and economic benefits for the area. Travelers stay on the converted oil rig and dive below the surface. “These oil platforms, they’re in every ocean. And there’s potential that all of them could have a booming ecosystem,” Jackson says during the film.

Both express an eagerness to see reform to California’s current rigs to reefs law that would lead to an actual implementation of the program. Currently, the state law places much of the liability for decommissioned oil rigs on the oil companies in perpetuity, which has led to oil companies keeping oil rigs active and refrain from decommissioning them. Hazelwood says that needs to change: She proposes the state should oversee the process of transforming decommissioned rigs and accept liability for the artificial reefs going forward, taking it out of the hands—and bank accounts—of the oil companies. If California did pass new legislation that changed some of the current regulations for transforming rigs to reefs, it would allow some of the aging oil platforms to be put to a good use, rather than their current nearly defunct status.

Protecting California’s coast

To be sure, rigs to reefs movements have had more success in other parts of the world, specifically Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, where former oil platforms have been turned into thriving habitats for aquatic creatures. The difference, according to Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, which promotes the environmental interest of the southern central California coast, is in the soil.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the soft sandy bottom of the ocean floor lends itself well to an artificial reef. Material can be added to the artificial reef to make it more beneficial to marine life. With California’s natural rocky reef habitat, that isn’t an option—and the artificial reefs may impose on the natural marine habitat. “When people hear about [the successes of] rigs to reefs in the Gulf, they think that’s what would happen here [in California]—but it’s not [the same],” Krop says.

One of the benefits of the artificial reefs is that in areas like the Gulf of Mexico, they can be moved to areas in need of a reef support for aquatic life. But not all environments are created equal when it comes to re-homing artificial reefs. In the Gulf of Mexico, Krop says, the soil is very different—unlike California’s naturally rocky reef habitat, those programs are dealing with a habitat with a soft, sandy bottom, which makes it easier to re-home artificial reefs. “For recreation and artificial purposes, these programs do create reefs [where previously there were none],” Krop says.

Krop has concerns about the actual implementation of California’s rigs to reefs law. One major concern is the fact that the coastline is aging out of most of the existing oil platforms and rigs, meaning the oil platforms are drying up and will need to be decommissioned in the next several years. If we chisel away at the laws requiring oil companies to be liable for the removal of the platforms, she theorizes it could start a new round of offshore drilling near California’s coastline, which hasn’t seen new leases for offshore oil and gas sales since 1984. Then California passed the California Coastal Sanctuary Act in 1994 to protect the state waters only from new leases; new wells can be drilled into existing platforms. But that law doesn’t protect California’s coast from offshore drilling in federal waters, which start just over three miles off of California’s coast.

“One reason we’re really worried about the new federal offshore leasing program is that we’re at a point where we see us transitioning away from these offshore platforms. If the federal government issues a new round of leases or proposals to develop them, that’s another 50 to 60 years of fossil fuel development,” Krop says. “If [an oil] company knows they won’t have to spend as much money [removing offshore rigs] they might be interested in building new platforms. It’s a real threat.” And with President Trump’s proposed expansions to offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters, past state jurisdictions, the question is not a hypothetical one.

One of the reasons the rig to reef law did pass in 2010 in California, Krop believes, is because the oil companies would be required to share some of the cost savings of their total removal with the state. Those savings could mean tens of millions of dollars that would funnel back to the state of California for leaving the rigs in place. It’s an attractive prospect, particularly for state lawmakers whose districts are not affected by offshore drilling.

Currently though, as the law stands, the transformation can’t be just about money. “There has to be some scientific basis for saying [the decommissioned oil rig] will function as an artificial reef,” Krop says. If a decommissioned oil platform is found to be of environmental value to the coastline and transformed into a reef, the oil company remains liable for any future complications or natural disasters that might occur from leaving the reef in place.

But recent legislative measures have attempted to chip away at the liability oil companies would face for the transformed rigs. Many of these bills have proposed transferring liability for the left-in-place rigs to the state, leaving the state (and taxpayers) on the hook for the expensive work of fully removing a decommissioned rig if it’s found to be leaking pollution into the ocean and unsuitable to keep in place as an artificial reef. So even though leaving the rigs in place might make money for California up front, the cost of the future potential damage and liabilities could be astronomical. “The state won’t have the money to take out the rest of the platform. It’s pretty much an irreversible decision,” Krop says.

But Krop also admits that it’s difficult—for those on both sides of the dispute—to really evaluate whether the rigs to reefs system is working in California, since no actual rigs have as yet been turned into reefs. Krop does, however, oppose new legislation in the face of the untested current legislation: “I’m just trying to remind people we already have a rigs to reefs law. We need to see if it works—we haven’t even tried it yet!”

Pushing the reef forward

In 2017, Venoco announced it was declaring bankruptcy and would be decommissioning Platform Holly, an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara. The wells of the rig are in the process of being sealed. Decommissioning isn’t expected to be complete until 2021. Decommissioning Platform Holly is part of the estimated $350 million cost for decommissioning various oil fields off the Goleta coast, including Holly’s 30 oil wells.

One of the options for the decommissioned rig, after the wells have been sealed, is to make it an artificial reef. If so, it would be the first rig converted to reef off the coast of California and the first real test of whether converting decommissioned oil rigs will lead to thriving marine ecosystems in the area or become potential pollution that falls on the shoulders of the taxpayers. Only time will tell.