And now the good news about oil rigs

In summary: 
  • UTS scientists are proposing a large-scale expansion of the so-called "rigs-to-reefs" concept – leaving decommissioned rigs where they stand or moving them elsewhere to create artificial reefs
  • They say industry savings from a rigs-to-reef program should support independent research and monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of rigs as artificial reefs in the deep sea


It might seem surprising that marine scientists are proposing a way for the oil and gas industry to save billions of dollars decommissioning old offshore rigs, but it's a plan where the main beneficiary is intended to be the environment.

In a new paper for the journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment, published by the Ecological Society of America, three scientists from the University of Technology, Sydney propose a large-scale expansion of the so-called "rigs-to-reefs" concept – leaving decommissioned rigs where they stand or moving them elsewhere to create artificial reefs.

Professor David Booth, Dr Peter Macreadie and Ashley Fowler have formed the Decommissioning Ecology Group to promote consideration of the idea, which Professor Booth took to the national congress of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association in Perth this week.

Dr Peter Macreadie and Professor David Booth. Picture by Alexandra BerrimanDr Peter Macreadie and Professor David Booth. Picture by Alexandra Berriman

"The oil and gas industry worldwide is looking at the decommissioning of 6500 offshore rigs by 2025," Professor Booth said. "In Australia more than 60 rigs face decommissioning soon and government policy is still not set. Policy based on science is badly needed in this area.

"A rigs-to-reef project in the Gulf of Mexico dates back to 1979, but most other regions of the US and the world still require complete removal of subsea structures. With mandatory removal targets set to increase, removal and disposal activities will cost the industry billions and would leave a major carbon footprint."

In their article Macreadie, Fowler and Booth caution that a lot more research is needed, but artificial reefs potentially have important benefits in deep-sea locations.

"Rigs themselves have been described as 'de facto marine protected areas' because they exclude trawl fishing and their large internal spaces offer shelter to fish and other organisms," the authors said.

"Deep-sea communities in particular may benefit because the characteristics of their species (longevity, slow growth, late reproduction, low fecundity) make them highly vulnerable to exploitation.
"We suggest that a rigs-to-reef program in the deep sea, in conjunction with the establishment of marine protected areas, may offer a means of conserving deep-sea communities.

"Partnerships between scientists and industry, such as the SERPENT project, will improve the capacity for further research.

"We recommend that industry savings from a rigs-to-reef program should support independent research and monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of rigs in fulfilling their intended purpose as artificial reefs in the deep sea."

Great Idea. Have studies been done to evaluate the Gulf "rigs-to-reefs" over the past 30+ yrs and whether there are long term effects on the environment...perhaps one not conducted by proponents of the rigs-to-reefs solution??

Creating policy, especially policy which supports a multi-billion dollar industry, I certainly have concerns about the long term - what we believe to be good for the environment may, in the future, contradict actual circumstances - once it becomes policy, the multi-billion dollar industry, irrespective of the actual effects, will make it very difficult to reverse.

Lastly, if we are to adopt a "rigs-to-reefs" policy, I expect (you know what they say when you assume) and hope that we would consider a quota whereby, oil companies can only convert "x" amount per "y" time frame - 6500 rigs to be decommissioned today - I don't want my children (and grandchildren etc...)only knowing an ocean overburdened with rig-reefs..

Thanks for your comments.

We did not find any comprehensive scientific studies evaluating the “rigs-to-reef” program in the Gulf – this is not to say they don’t exist (indeed, some form of environmental assessment would have been required to have the “rigs-to-reef” bill passed through government), but rather that they are not accessible to the general public (it is likely they are buried in the gray literature, as opposed to published in scientific peer-reviewed journals). Nevertheless, there are some good studies that have evaluated the ecological effects of rigs in operation. For example, Dr Milton Love and colleagues (www.lovelab.id.ucsb.edu/ - a very interesting lab webpage...) monitored rockfish associated with Californian oil rigs and found that 20% of juvenile fish in the region were supported by 8 rigs, and that those fish associated with rigs grew faster and survived longer (essentially, rigs were acting as fish nurseries and were boosting regional fish production). They predicted that the loss of a single rig would be equivalent to removing 29 hectares of natural habitat.

But it’s not all rosy; there are serious risks. Potential negative impacts include the release of contaminants as rigs corrode, physical damage to habitats and organisms within the “drop zone”, spread of invasive species, and undesired changes to food web dynamics. Assessing these risks will require serious financial investment in deep sea research programs, and as you say, these assessments need to be done by groups who are unbiased. Our suggestion is that industry savings from rigs-to-reef programs could fund environmental impact assessments by independent bodies, which could be overseen by representatives from government, community and industry to ensure transparency.

You raise a very important point: “what we believe to be good for the environment may, in the future, contradict actual circumstances”. My personal viewpoint is that we need to run some “rigs-to-reefs” pilot studies now, and have some money put aside to remove these rigs if things go bad.

I understand your feelings about the deep sea being overburdened by rig-reefs. In response to this I think it’s worth noting that the oil industry is moving into deeper waters, and the new deep-water rig designs have much less structure (check out the diagram of rig types at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_platform – what we have is a large number of rigs that look like the conventional fixed platform design, but we’re moving to the vertically moored design). This means that in future we probably won’t have the burden of getting rid of all this structure (FYI: most of these fixed platforms stand the size of the Eiffel Tower and have a footprint the size of a football field!). The other point is that we’re starting to get better at controlling illegal fisheries in the deep-sea, which means our ideas about using rigs to exclude illegal fishing trawlers may not be necessary in the future.

Regards,
Peter Macreadie

have a look at
http://www.associazionepaguro.org/
http://www.scubaportal.it/paguro.html
after an accindent in an oil rig in 1965