Offshore Oil “Rigs To Reefs” Program Is Helping Gulf States Increase Marine Wildlife

Submitted by Sharon Appleton on
Artificial reef created by the Rigs to Reef program

A little known provision of the National Fishing Enhancement Act is helping states that border the Gulf of Mexico (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) turn decommissioned offshore oil production platforms into the hottest new addressed to live at for marine wildlife.  There are currently more than 12,000 offshore oil and gas production platforms worldwide, with an estimated 1,500 in the Gulf of Mexico alone.  

So far the five states that border the gulf has successfully converted these decommissioned floating city block size oil platforms into sunken treasures for fish, coral, and other marine life by becoming artificial reefs.  Once an oil company decides to seal a well because the fossil fuel has been extracted, the oil platform is usually older and no longer efficient for modern production targets, so they have to make a choice, decommission the platform by removing everything not specifically part of the floating hull itself, remove all toxic substances and then undertake the expensive effort of hauling it away, or they can work with one of the gulf states and simply sink it to the bottom along the coastline and allow it to become an artificial reef.  These sunken platforms are usually laid in their new homes in the 75-150 foot depth, depending on the height of the structure so that they do not become a navigation hazard to passing ships but can be visited by divers.

Sinking it has become the more preferred option as oil and gas companies are under increased pressure to be more environmentally responsible from activist investors and environmental movements and found that by doing so, it’s saving them money in the process.  The artificial reefs created from the Rigs-to-Reef program have been so successful, there are now entire underwater parks where divers can go and see the new marine life and coral reefs.

But this successful program hasn’t been embraced by all, in California, despite residents overwhelmingly disliking oil production platforms sitting offshore for them to see, the state has not gotten behind the Rigs-to-Reef program.  Now there is new effort to export the Gulf of Mexico success story to California and to other parts of the world including Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the North Sea and more.

On average, about 200 oil production platforms are decommissioned every year, but with the pandemic, and with many speculating that we have reached or now passed “peak oil” (a point at which oil was at its highest demand, and going forward the world simply needs and uses less oil due to increased efficiencies in vehicles, electric vehicles and less demand due to the pandemic).  If we have reached or now passed peak oil, that means even more floating platform cities will start getting decommissioned over the next few years.

Amber Reyes of Greenpeace says “we could see as many as 500 or 600 oil platforms get decommissioned every year if we in fact have passed peak oil.  Globally we need to have a coordinated plan on what we will do with these floating platforms which will become environmental waste piles if we don’t dispose of them properly.  Many oil and gas companies only do the minimum, or pass them through a somewhat secretive ownership process so that they can eventually leave the rigs saddled with yet another company that is broke and doesn’t have the financial ability to dispose of it correctly, and so they get abandoned.  These third party companies pop up and go out of business pretty quick.’’

In the U.S. Shell has been actively participating in the Rigs-to-Reef program for a while and now others are eyeing how they to can do the right thing and also save money in an industry that has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.  Most of the oil majors have now expressed an interest in the Rigs-to-Reef program, for both here in the U.S. but also in other parts of the globe where there is no program to turn these behemoths into a beneficial platform for marine wildlife.