How Dismantling Old Oil Rigs Damages Vibrant Reef Habitats

There are more than 12,000 offshore oil and gas platforms worldwide, at least 7,000 of them in the Gulf of Mexico.

As these rigs drain their reservoirs of fossil fuels below the sea, they eventually become unprofitable. That’s when operators must make the choice between decommissioning the platform or abandoning the structure at sea.

The number of defunct rigs in the ocean is set to grow as a worsening climate crisis hastens the world’s race to find more sustainable sources of fuel, but removing these rigs incredibly expensive and labor-intensive, the BBC reports. Moreover, letting them rust and fall into disrepair could irreparably damage marine ecosystems.

There are more than 7,000 oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Source: Adobe Stock/Photocreo Bednarek
There are more than 7,000 oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Drilling rigs are built to withstand hurricane force winds and turbulent waves. It’s no coincidence that removing and returning components of the rig to shore for recycling is a big job. Drilling companies are responsible for not only the equipment for oil and gas processing and drilling, but the supporting seabed-to-surface structure, more commonly called the “jacket,” as well. As the Conversation reports, decommissioning requires removing the ultra-heavy subsea support structure, steel frame, and the entire working core of the oil or gas rig, the drilling, production and processing modules, the helicopter deck and the accommodation for the crew.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Rigs to Reefs program has seen 532 oil and gas platforms turned into artificial reefs for marine life. After several years in the water, the structures have become covered by countless oysters, mussels, barnacles, sponges and corals, supporting even more crabs, worms and sea urchins to use. These animals then provide food for larger fishes, a true reef ecosystem.

Oil rig understructures make for thriving marine habitats.
Source: Adobe Stock/Todd Winner
Oil rig understructures make for thriving marine habitats.

In the North Sea, porpoises are a common sight around oil and gas platforms.

“It’s easy to understand why the porpoises enjoy the area. One can’t throw a fish hook without catching one of the many cod around the legs of the oil platform,” said Jonas Teilmann, a senior Aarhus University researcher who studied the use of old oil platforms as marine habitat.

Coral reef, mussels and oysters provide food and refuge for fish around oil rig structures.
Source: Adobe Stock/Kirk Wester
Coral reef, mussels and oysters provide food and refuge for fish around oil rig structures.

Decommissioning these platforms destroys the thriving marine ecosystems that have built up over decades. As the BBC reports, it also results in increased harmful air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, decommissioning brings about little to no social or economic benefits, creates few jobs, while costing millions in taxpayer dollars.

According to Geographical, reefing a platform is significantly less expensive than total removal and could save the industry millions of dollars each year. Some companies are spending the money they save on decommissioning on maintaining their existing platforms, marine conservation and education.

Decommissioning an oil rig is a costly and labor-intensive process.
Source: Adobe Stock/Mike Mareen
Decommissioning an oil rig is a costly and labor-intensive process.

As the American Society of Mechanical Engineers reports, the shallow continental shelf waters of the Gulf of Mexico have been a hotbed of drilling activity since 1937. As new Gulf platforms are forced to move further from shore and into deeper water, thousands more rigs may be facing obsolescence.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Rigs to Reefs program can not only make a difference in mitigating the risks these aging rigs present to the environment, it can save taxpayers millions in the process.

Join the growing number of individuals demanding that this program be federally mandated and expanded throughout the rest of the U.S. coastline. Click below to make a difference.

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