Can Abandoned Offshore Oil Rigs Be Reborn as Eco Saviors?

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

For all the bad press on oil rigs in the past months, some fish seem to have taken a shine to the much-maligned behemoths.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a big, old rig in the Celebes Sea—bordered by Borneo, Indonesia and the Philippines—that has been turned into a luxury diving platform (a three-day, two-night package goes for $516!).

The Singapore-based owner of the Seaventures Dive Resort, Suzette Harris, says her father-in-law bought the rig in Singapore more than 20 years ago and had it towed to the crystal clear waters nearest to Borneo.

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When the oil has dried up, these rigs can be abandoned to provide habitat, and diving, fishing and research opportunities. (Photo: Lee Celano/Reuters)

While the diving in the area sounds primo, and promotional illustrations of the rig make it look paradisiacal, the WSJ review suggests the ambience is still very heavy metal. The air around the rig-turned-dive platform seems to reek of… oil.

Owner Harris admits the rig is far from an eco-resort. “No matter what you do, oil rigs have an industrial feel,” she says. “You’re not coming here to enjoy the sunsets. You come here to dive.”

Meanwhile, back in the Gulf of Mexico, ever wonder what happens to all those rigs bolted to the ocean floor once their wells run dry?

Approximately 2,000 of the platforms have been cut off at the surface, the tops sold off as scrap and the undersea infrastructure left behind.

That may sound like yet another ecologic nightmare perpetrated by the oil industry. But the left-behind rigs seem to be functioning perfectly fine as artificial reefs, attracting fish, sports fishermen, divers, researchers and more.

A report published by the nonprofit EcoRigs and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, titled Removal of Oil and Gas Platforms: Rationale for Retaining Infrastructure to Develop Offshore Renewable Resources in the Gulf of Mexico, finds that so-called “rigs to reef programs”—which exist in several Gulf States—make both ecologic and economic sense.

If rigs were to be ripped from the ocean floor, they would leave mass destruction behind, destroying plant life and habitat.

Also true: fish tend to congregate near the sub-structures of docks and oil rigs, even buoys afloat in the middle of the ocean. A thick mat of seaweed, kelp and other marine plants quickly overgrows below-surface structures, which makes a perfect habitat for fish. According to EcoRigs, fish populations hanging around some abandoned rigs range in size from 10,000 to 30,000.

Some oil companies insist, for liability reasons, on carting away the entirety of their rigs once work is done, for fear some future leak may come back to haunt them.

A proposed federal law—the Rigs to Reef Act—would encourage more companies to leave their scrap behind by transferring liabilities.

In the next decade, another 700 platforms are scheduled to be removed from the Gulf; EcoRigs worries that without some kind of federal law, most of those will be ripped out, decimating fish populations and leaving another 800 acres of ocean floor shredded.  

EcoRigs also estimates that building faux reefs from scratch (by dumping subway cars, navy ships, etc. into the shallow waters) would cost more than $7 billion.


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