What to Do After an Oil Rig Dies: California's Quandary

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Bob Thomason / Corbis

An oil and gas drilling rig off the coast of California

What happens after an oil rig dies? Even as the Deepwater Horizon disaster continues unresolved in the Gulf of Mexico, California and other states are debating what to do when the intended work of the gigantic platforms is over. One option, supported by some naturalists as well as by the oil industry, is to keep much of each individual rig in place.

As much as that appalls other environmentalists, it helps skirt two consequences of dismantling the rigs: the immense cost — perhaps $1 billion to remove all of California's 27 rigs once they are past utility — and the carbon footprint that accompanies the process, emanating from the barges that will have to be brought in from the North Sea to transport the rigs' component steel to places as far away as Texas or even China. California is considering a bill that would evaluate each rig on a case-by-case basis to see which ones could be left behind as artificial reefs to enhance marine life, with the oil companies required to lop off the tops and also to establish a substantial conservation fund based on the money they save in the process. Some rigs may be due for decommissioning as soon as 2015.

Opponents of the remnant rig proposal pose a number of arguments, all of which have been used to defeat similar bills in the past: One, the main beneficiaries would be the oil companies that would avoid the full cost of cleaning up after exploiting the state's resources. Two, the state would have to assume risky liability for any future rig-related accidents occurring to recreational or commercial divers and fishermen. And three, there's likely to be continuing pollution from the rigs because of toxic debris as well as poor oversight of decommissioned rigs — as documented by a recent report by the Associated Press — with potential leakage from wells no longer in operation. "The main purpose is really money — to save money for oil companies and to give money to the state," says Linda Krop, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. "Do we want to clean up the ocean or do we want the money in exchange for allowing these platforms, which are surrounded by huge piles of contaminated debris, to remain in place?"

Milton Love, a deepwater researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara, says, "People like little neat stories but this is not a little neat story. This requires some gray. This is not black and white." As part of his work at the university, Love drives a submarine beneath the rigs to determine whether fish indeed like to call them home. He says he was blown away — "almost incoherent" in his words — after seeing the number of big fish at rig sites when he began his deepwater research in 1995. The profusion, he says, is "not because anyone has sprinkled magic pixie dust on them. It's because [the rigs] are extremely large structures, so that when young fishes are drifting around, they encounter platforms more easily than they would encounter a natural reef [in which they take refuge].

Though Love says his job as a scientist is merely to count fish, leaving to others the interpretation of the results, his own view is that "when we remove a platform, hundreds of millions of animals die — not just the fishes, and there are half-a-million fish around some platforms, but all of the animals that are attached to them die too. I think that's just immoral."

Love and his work have come in for criticism by opponents of the so-called rigs-to-reefs proposals because some of his research was funded by the California Artificial Reef Enhancement program, which received contributions from the oil industry. Love laughs at the accusation, saying the industry's influence was "severely laundered" by the time it got to him. Love says his data shows that each rig is "quite different" but that the platforms seem to be adding to the overall fish population, especially economically important species like rockfish.

Krop and her allies argue that the ocean floor off California has enough natural reefs and do not need artificial ones, and notes that the state does already support an artificial reef program, but one that requires such reefs be consciously designed to enhance regional fishery stocks. The oil companies, says Krop, "don't want to deliberately site and design a reef. They just want to leave the platforms where they are."

Complicating matters further is the tremendous size and depth of California's rigs, many of which — including one the size of the Empire State Building — are much bigger than the more than 1,000 rigs removed in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1980s. That big unknown is swaying legislators such as Pedro Nava, whose state assembly district lines the Santa Barbara Channel, where 20 of the state's 27 offshore rigs are located. Though his predecessors have almost single-handedly led the way in defeating three prior rigs-to-reef bills, Nava is concerned about the full environmental cost of full rig removal.

Looking to the Gulf Coast, Nava hopes California's bill will require the oil companies to pay more than 50% of their savings into the state conservation fund and wants the liability issues to be strengthened. "I'm sure people years ago thought they had negotiated the best possible deal with the oil companies and considered everything," said Nava. "But guess what? Looks like some things were left out and we are now left with trying to deal with real life consequences."