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Can Oil Rigs Become Artificial Reefs? 

Offshore oil rigs have always been an unsightly enemy to environmentalists and the environment alike. The everlasting connection between oil rigs and oil spills continues to live on in international memory. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 was the worst in US history but later outdone by the explosion of Deepwater Horizon platform in 2010, killing 11 people and causing a resultant oil spill that lasted 3 subsequent months. Oil spills have disastrous consequences for society, and initiates a political struggle concerning government responses and future prevention. An oil rig therefore has the power to completely overturn the environmental stability of a marine ecosystem but in a carbon intensive society, it remains an essential edifice in maintaining our energy consumptive lifestyles. There could be, however, a future for decommissioned oil rigs that is environmentally friendly and ecologically beneficial.

Flickr | Matt Gragg Photography | Hawaii Coral Reef Minnows Rigs-To-Reefs:

'Rigs-to-Reefs' is an environmental initiative that converts decommissioned offshore oil rigs into biotic reefs to sustain the lives of fish and smaller marine species. When oil rigs are established, marine organisms attach and form habitats on the underwater base of the structure. These platforms continue to function until the end of their productive lives when the rigs are usually decommissioned and removed. However, the full decommissioning of an oil rig would merely disrupt the ecosystems that take shelter on the rig’s steel structure in the open waters. A 'partial' decommissioning would ensure that only the top half of the oil rig is removed and the lower half of the oil platform sustaining marine ecosystems remains intact. 

  • Eureka Oil Platform, California, USA: The depths reached by California's offshore oil and gas platforms creates difficulties in the complete decommissioning processes and the cost would be nearly $5 million to remove the entire rig, not to mention the carbon emissions involved in such an operation.
  • Kenyalang Reef, Malaysia: Also known as Tyre Reef was built by the Malaysian Fisheries Department and is teeming with small fish as the depth ranges between 13 and 22m. Partial decommissioning and the ‘Rigs-to-Reefs’ initiative was useful for its cost-effectiveness and its ecological-conscious process.

Flickr | arbyreed | Night RigThe Big Debate:

  • Oil Company stakeholders can benefit from potential savings of over $4 million by implementing the 'Rigs-to-Reefs' initiative. The ability to repurpose existing platforms is also simpler than dismantling and recycling decommissioned rigs.
  • Commercial Fisheries have mixed feelings on Rigs-to-Reefs depending on their style of fishing. Those who trawl oppose the initiative as hazard prevention while others who require fish species that are endemic to the oil platform habitat are in full support. Similarly, sport fishermen and the charter fishing industry find success in the high fish populations that congregate around active and inactive oil platforms.
  • Environmentalists would naturally never support any initiative that favoured the interests of the oil industry e.g. lowered decommissioning costs. The act of abandoning oil rigs in marine space is seen as ocean dumping since the state does not fund the ‘toxic mess’ left by any other industry. Some believe that the marine habitats should be returned to their original state and rigs should be completely removed. Others realise that oil platforms would need constant maintenance and upkeep.
  • The Public hear the benefits of the reef programmes from oil companies and some believe that this is a form of 'greenwashing' or environmentally-friendly propaganda.

Flickr | MichaƂ Huniewicz | Fishermen at work - MauritaniaThe initiative does not promote the future drilling of fossil fuels as 'Rigs-to-Reefs' researchers are simply being creative with resources. Initiating green plans rather than advocating reefing as an afterthought makes reducing carbon footprints and reef conservation their primary interest. Every country has their own perspectives on platforms which makes implementing the programme so difficult.

By Anaka Nair - Online Journalism Intern

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