is a nationwide program developed by the Minerals Management Service
of the U.S. Department of the Interior
to turn decommissioned oil and petroleum rigs
into artificial reefs.
The United States has been mining oil offshore since the early 20th Century; yet the concern over abandoned oil rigs has surfaced a little less than 30 years ago."Today over 4,500 offshore oil and gas platforms have been installed supplying 25% of the United States' production of natural gas and 10% of its oil. These platforms continue to function as long as the reservoirs underneath them provide oil at a profitable rate. Once these platforms have reached the end of their productive lives they must be decommissioned and removed within one year. An alternative option to removal is through the Rigs-to-Reef (RTR) policy. All of the coastal states have artificial reef programs in the interest of increasing ocean fisheries but not all of them participate in the RTR program. This could be a result of policy and environmental debate.
Rigs-to-Reefs in Process
Once a rig stops producing economical quantities of oil, the site is usually abandoned. The MMS requires that within a year of abandonment (stopped production)and lease end, the rig be removed unless an alternative option is presented. Rigs-to-Reefs is the alternative to total removal and scrapping of materials. It also helps to avoid a loss of marine life that over the years have thrived on the legs of the structure. The MMS supports and encourages the use of offshore petroleum structures as artificial reefs for this reason among others. The oil companies also benefit by avoiding the substantial cost of removal. It is estimated that cumulative costs of removal reached $1 billion by the year 2000.
Decommissioning a Platform
The method of decommissioning depends on water depth and structure type and is a three step process that includes planning, permitting, and implementation. The process usually requires another company (other than the oil and petroleum company) to administer it. Decommissioning an oil rig is the act of removal according to regulatory requirements and includes flushing, plugging and cementing wells to make them safe for the rig removal. Decommissioning relies heavily on numerous factors such as cost, safety, operational duration, environmental issues, risk, experience, and historical relationship between operator and state.
Methods of Reefing
Even before decommissioning begins, reefing is considered. In the case of Louisiana's artificial reef program the cost for decommissioning as well as the risk involved are main factors in determining if the rig will be reefed. If the savings are large and positive the structure will be reefed and a donation of 1/2 the savings will be made for upkeep, but if the savings are small and negative the structure will not be reefed. Once reefing is the determined outcome and decommissioning takes place, one of the next three options will be taken:
Tow and Place
This method of reefing involves using explosives to remove the structure from the sea floor. After removal, it is towed to the place designated by the state for reefing. The explosives used for removal cause significant harm to the species already living on and around the structure. There is however a great opportunity for the structure to create and sustain many diverse species once it is reefed. The steel structures provide high levels of stability and are made extremely durable. They often create hiding places and shelter in locations where there were none previously available.
In partial removal, the top portion of the submerged platform is chopped off using mechanical and abrasive cutters. The cut portion is either placed on the sea floor or transferred to another reefing site. The work of severing the structure is typically done by SCUBA divers and can pose additional risk to human safety when compared to the explosive method. However, the use of cutters as compared with explosives lessens the impact on existing marine life. Unfortunately, partial removal eliminates the shallow portion of the habitat and can result in a loss of the shell mound community and fish that once dwell there but the majority of the species will remain in tact.
Similar to the "Tow and Place" method toppling requires the base of the structure below the mud line to be blown out using explosives. Once the structure is uprooted it can be turned horizontally on its side and placed on the bottom of the ocean. This methods use of explosives has the adverse effect of killing the fish present during detonation. It also eliminates the shallow and mid ocean habitats that it once supported while standing vertically. However, these portions of the rig are now free to be inhabited by a different type of species. The shape and complexity of the structure now on the sea floor may also lead to a surprising amount of diversity in its new population.
The early 1900's saw the beginning of oil exploration around the coastal United States. Governmental provisions addressing offshore oil exploration and drilling were non-existent and jurisdictional uncertainty existed between state and federal entities. In hope of collaboration the Submerged Lands Act was put into effect to give states and government a clear understanding of their jurisdictions. This was immediately followed by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) used to control leasing of exploration rights in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The OCSLA did not contain any real environmental provisions associated with drilling and in 1969 an explosion at a drilling location off of California's coast put the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into effect. NEPA concluded that every major federal action (ie: oil exploration on the OCS) required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In 1982, The U.S. Department of the Interior created the Mineral Management Service to monitor development on the Outer Continental Shelf. This department was instituted to lease out submerged federal lands and assess any effects the exploration and drilling for oil would cause environmentally (by issuing an EIS). In 1984 Congress passed the National Fishing Enhancement Act (NFEA) which provided the ground work for the coastal states' artificial reef programs. This Act was a part of a mission to replenish the oceans fisheries that were being depleted by such things as overfishing. The NFEA spawned the National Artificial Reef Plan of 1985. This plan paved the way for government endorsed artificial reef projects and subsequently the Minerals Management Services' Rigs-to-Reef program.
Although Rigs-to-Reefs is officially a written policy in the mid 1980's, the concept was first explored in 1979 when the first oil rig was transported from Louisiana's off shore drilling location to a artificial reef site in Florida. This rig was the first to come of 5 subsequent Rigs-to-Reefs donated to Florida's coast. Louisiana was the first to develop a state specific artificial reef program that allowed transfer of liability and ownership from the oil company to the state. Texas followed this example years later. The Rigs-to-Reef program is now the core of both Louisiana and Texas' artificial reef program. From 1987-1995, of the over 941 platforms removed from Louisiana and Texas waters, 90 platforms or approximately 10% were transformed into artificial reefs. By November 2000, 151 platforms have been recycled as artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico from states such as: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Where there is policy there is also opposition. Debates surrounding Rigs-to-Reefs stem from environmentalists, fisherman, oil companies, and others looking to seek out their own means of justice. California is one location in hot dialogue over Rigs to Reefs along with the North Sea. Even with the success of the reefing of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and Philippines differences in terrain, government entities, and concerned citizens equal a different take on the debate.
A report by the Mineral Management Service in 2000 says researchers proclaim fish densities of about 20 to 50 times higher around oil and gas platforms than in nearby open water. This proclamation gives a nod to those looking to profit from the high fish density around these platforms. Recreational fisherman and SCUBA divers are examples of those who benefit from volumes of fish but the real question on the minds of those in debate is: are these numbers increasing because of an influx of fish from nearby or are the oil platforms helping to create new life? Ocean fisheries have become depleted due to things like overfishing and trawling and Rigs-to-Reefs is part of an act intended to revitalize this lost life. Research done observing rockfish populations on oil rigs has shown support for both production and aggregation of marine life however additional support is needed.
A big question on the minds of those interested in adapting the Rigs to Reef program is who will accept liability for a rig after it is reefed? The MMS will not release an oil company from obligation unless someone accepts liability for the reefed structure. If the structure is in state waters, it is customary but not required that the state take on such liability. Federal waters present a trickier situation where the oil company may remain liable unless transferred to a private entity or another MMS approved agency. Commercial fisherman who trawl oppose RTR because theres a chance that their nets may snag a rig and present a potentially hazardous situation for their crew. Navigational mishaps and diving accidents may also occur around an artificial reef. Furthermore the ethical question of letting oil companies off the hook for what should be their long term liability exists. Gulf of Mexico Rigs-to-Reefs participants have not yet reported any liability problems yet the debate still continues.
Oil spills major and minor have occurred around offshore oil platforms. The idea of oil companies benefiting monetarily and in liability rather than losing is another concern surrounding Rigs-to-Reefs. Environmental groups have long opposed oil companies and frame their debate of Rigs-to-Reefs around distrusting these parties. "No other industry is allowed to leave a toxic mess for the state to manage and maintain at taxpayer expense" said Linda Krop, Chief council for the Santa Barbara based Environmental Defense Center. The idea of leaving a massive man-made structure in the ocean is a little off putting but on the other hand Rigs to Reefs reefing process only allows for the safe part of the structure to be reefed and 1/2 of the savings donated toward the upkeep of the structure. The Louisiana Artificial Reef program since its inception to 1998 had received roughly $9.7 million in donations and has not needed any taxpayers money yet the argument continues. This is an interesting debate to be sure and relies heavily on a detest for oil companies and a "wilderness ideal," that is a marine environment that fails to retain a visible mark of human activities.