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An Afterlife For California’s Offshore Oil Rigs?

Evening Edition

Above: For many Californians, offshore oil rigs are a total eyesore, ugly and lifeless. But some marine scientists say our view might change if we could see below the water's surface. Vibrant ecosystems cling to many of these rigs. And all that life complicates the question of what to do with offshore rigs after their oil wells run dry. KPBS science reporter David Wagner dives into the debate.

Looking off the pier at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the horizon is crystal clear. San Diego is lucky to have such an unblemished view of the Pacific Ocean. In other parts of California, looking out to sea often means looking at offshore oil rigs.

Aired 7/29/14 on KPBS News.

They look ugly and lifeless from the shore. But beneath the water's surface, offshore oil rigs in California harbor rich ecosystems that some people want to want to preserve.

For many Californians, offshore oil rigs are a total eyesore, ugly and lifeless. But some marine scientists say our view might change if we could see below the water's surface. Vibrant ecosystems cling to many of these rigs. And all that life complicates the question of what to do with offshore oil rigs that are no longer productive.

Two offshore oil rigs loom off the coast of Huntington Beach, July 20, 2014.

"A lot of people would love to see these things gone," said Emily Callahan, who recently got her masters in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps. "They just want to see clear blue ocean."

Callahan's masters project was all about these offshore rigs. Or more specifically, the marine life they foster.

"Life finds a way to flourish in any environment," Callahan said. "You put something in the ocean, things are bound to take shelter there."

Callahan teamed up with another recent Scripps grad, Amber Jackson, to explore a seemingly simple question: What should happen to California's offshore rigs once their wells run dry? Should they be completely dismantled and hauled ashore? Or should they just… stay there?

The second option is called a "rigs-to-reef" program. Callahan explains: "Essentially what they do is they take off the upper portion of the rig, they remove it, and transplant it somewhere else in the ocean, or they might leave it next to the rig."

The idea is to chop off the platform but leave the underwater scaffolding in place to conserve all the fish and invertebrates gathered there — to transform these oil-drilling machines into long-term artificial reefs.

"They've been doing this in the Gulf of Mexico for about 40 years now," said Callahan. "They're hoping to bring the same kind of program, with different rules and regulations, to California."

To determine whether this approach is worth pursuing here, Callahan and Jackson wanted to see if life is actually thriving on California rigs. They're both certified scuba divers, so as part of their research, they suited up and explored rigs off the coast of Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach.

"Every beam and crossbeam is covered in electric pink anemones, brittle stars, mussels, scallops the size of tennis balls," said Jackson, describing what they saw on these dives in vivid detail.

"The beams are so covered in life, they look almost like fluffy. I'm trying to think of a better word to say that, but really, they look almost fluffy. On top of that you have schools of fish — garibaldi, señoritas, blacksmith — all schooling around these platforms."

Video

Diving Platform Gina

Above: Platform Gina lies four miles off the coast of Santa Barbara.

The two explorers talked to scientists, fishermen, oil company representatives and environmentalists. They mined the scientific literature on artificial reefs. They studied how similar programs worked in the Gulf of Mexico. Then they reached their verdict.

"We've come to the conclusion that this would be a successful and beneficial program when implemented in California," said Jackson.

But Linda Krop, chief counsel at the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, disagrees.

"It's just an opportunity for the oil companies to renege on their commitments to clean up these sites when they were first allowed to install the platforms," she said.

Krop opposes rigs-to-reef in California because she worries it could lead to long-term pollution, disrupt commercial fishing activity and endanger those passing over the remaining structures.

She also doesn't think the state of California should have to take responsibility for the reefs after the oil companies finish decommissioning their rigs.

"We want to make sure there's complete clean-up," said Krop. "And the only way that's going to happen is if the platforms are removed."

Proponents of rigs-to-reef contend it's a safe and environmentally-friendly process, but they also say they're sensitive to such concerns. Especially the concern that they're letting oil companies off too easily. After all, some of those companies caused many of the worst environmental disasters in history.

"No one wants to see the oil companies win, especially when they've been responsible for Santa Barbara, 1969," said Callahan.

But she argues tearing out rigs is itself harmful. It's a carbon-intensive process that destroys ecosystems decades in the making. Plus, she notes that under California's 2010 rigs-to-reef law, half of the money oil companies save would have to go back to the state for science and conservation efforts.

"They do save a lot of money," Callahan admitted. "But a lot of money goes towards good, and that's what's important to focus on."

California is currently home to 27 offshore rigs. Many are scheduled for decommissioning in the next five to 10 years. So far, none have been approved for conversion under California's rigs-to-reefs program.

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