A few miles off the U.S. coast, hundreds of oil rigs work around the clock, pumping up oil from just below the seafloor. Nearby, even more platforms rust away in the water — some abandoned months ago, others years, when they became no longer profitable. The purpose of an active oil rig is clear and known; its future at the end of its productive life, less so. As more and more oil and gas wells are sucked dry, concerned governmental legislators, drilling companies, and environmental agencies alike are hounded by the question: what should become of this ever-growing offshore oil graveyard? Luckily, an answer was lurking literally just below the surface.
From the shoreline, an offshore platform may seem like an eyesore, perhaps an unwelcome reminder of our dependence on fossil fuels. Dive under the waves, however, and those rusting steel beams transform into vibrant underwater cities, bustling with life.
Since platforms sit on the ocean floor for years, drilling infrastructure will naturally meld with surrounding ecosystems. Many retired oil rigs have inadvertently become breeding and feeding grounds for a wide array of sea life, from rockfish and octopi to sea turtles and starfish.
One U.S. program, Rigs-to-Reefs, has brilliantly capitalized on this natural healing process of the ocean by actively converting retired platforms into artificial coral reefs. Though originally founded under the 1984 National Fishing Enhancement Act, Rigs-to-Reefs has only recently been re-established as a legitimate (i.e. federally approved and funded) alternative to rig decommissioning. So far, about 500 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted to permanent artificial reefs – the process is long to ensure safety and conduct the necessary site-by-site evaluations.
Today, over 5% of the habitat in the Gulf of Mexico is made up of oil and gas platforms, earning it the title of “the largest man-made reef in the world.” Fish densities around the converted rigs have been found to be 20 to 50 times higher than in open water. No wonder 75% of recreational fishing trips in Louisiana visit at least one of these sites!
Similar programs have also taken off around the world, like in the biodiversity hotspots off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Not only are artificial reefs generating a tourism boom with regards to unique diving destinations, converted rigs are providing protection (and thus repopulation opportunities) for exploited sea life species. Because Southeast Asian countries depend heavily on fish as a primary source of protein, the global expansion of Rigs-to-Reefs programs have huge potential.
By and by, coral reefs are fearlessly recolonizing our industrial graveyards. While Rigs-to-Reefs embodies the hopeful notion that there can be life after ruin, such programs should not allow us to become passive in the fight against Big Oil. Sure, we now have a strong defense, but that doesn’t mean we can retire our offense. As a general rule of thumb for conservation, our first question should be “How can I reduce?” before we move on to “How can I reuse/recycle?”