Rigs to Reefs — Offshore Success
More than 4,500 offshore petroleum platforms supply 25 percent of the United States’ production of natural gas and 10 percent of its oil. Thanks to a program begun two decades ago, today’s offshore production benefits both the economy and the environment.
Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. Today, they form the world’s largest artificial reef complex.
This is a Gulf of Mexico success story, notes an article in Ocean Science, the Minerals Management Service quarterly magazine. Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. Today, they form the world’s largest artificial reef complex.
Although Rigs to Reefs developed as an official policy in the mid-1980s, the concept was first explored in 1979. The National Artificial Reef Plan paved the way for government-endorsed artificial reef projects.
The first planned conversion took place in 1979 with the re-location of an Exxon experimental subsea structure from offshore Louisiana to an artificial reef site off Apalachicola, Florida.
In 1984, the National Fishing Enhancement Act established national artificial reef standards.
MMS then developed policies encouraging the reuse of obsolete offshore petroleum structures – requiring compliance with standards of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the criteria in the National Artificial Reef Plan of 1985, which allowed states to plan, construct, and manage artificial reefs.
Platforms Bring Environmental Benefits
Petroleum platforms are artificial habitats. Whether placed as an artificial reef or a working (producing petroleum) structure, they have been found to increase the algae and invertebrates that at-tract and significantly increase the numbers and species of fish.
However, when an offshore structure becomes obsolete, it typically is removed from the environment, taking away the habitat that it created and disrupting those organisms residing at the site.
To prevent this disruption, the Rig to Reefs program allows oil and natural gas companies to choose to donate the reef to a coastal state – using one of three methods: tow-and-place, topple-in-place, or partial removal.
The program benefits petroleum platform owners by eliminating the high cost of transporting the structure for disposal. States benefit as the platform develops into an area that enhances commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and the biological community.
According to MMS, the participating states benefit through cost sharing with industry. Typically, the petroleum company donates half of its savings to state coffers. The populations that result from the recycled structures are called platform communities.
Fish densities have been found to be 20 to 50 times higher than in open water. Each platform typically supports more than 10,000 fish.
In addition to fish, the platforms are home to many other forms of sea life; barnacles and mussels dwell on the hard surfaces, and sea turtles are often found close by. The result is a complex food chain formed in environments that did not previously have the characteristics to support a natural reef community.
Seventy-five percent of recreational fishing trips in Louisiana visit one or more rig sites. These platforms are an ideal choice for artificial reefs.
Their size, density, and open design attract fish to the structures where they can swim easily through the circulating water. The structures are very stable during storms.
The platforms also provide the hard surface needed to create coral communities. As a result, MMS is working with the Coastal Marine Institute at Louisiana State University to study artificial reef corals. Another study is looking at the ecological effects of removing large numbers of petroleum structures.
In southern California, the populations of fish living in platform communities are the subject of several research projects. With many areas overfished, the increased population of fish at artificial reefs could be very valuable. The petroleum platforms in the Gulf of Mexico set the example.
“The fishing here is spectacular, whether it’s snapper, amberjack or grouper,” concludes charter boat Capt. Kerry Milano of Venice, La. “There’s really no limit to what you can catch at these offshore platforms. This is some of the best fishing anywhere in the world.”
Editor’s Note – Adapted from Ocean Science, March 2008, an MMS magazine published quarterly that provides outstanding ocean science and technological information.
An Ideal Habitat for Overfished Species
Whether it is an operating production platform or a retired rig intentionally placed, a typical four-pile, platform jacket provides almost three acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species. That’s a good thing, according to marine biologists, because the natural bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat.
A June 2006 report by marine scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrates that California’s offshore oil and natural gas platforms are critical nursery habitat for a certain species of fish.
According to the scientists, platforms play an important role in producing the young of a rockfish species on a scale that was previously unknown.
The findings have the potential to cause a significant shift in conventional thinking regarding artificial reefs. “This will have a huge impact on how we view these structures,” notes George Steinbach, executive director of the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Program.
“These platforms are better nursery habitat than the natural reefs in the area. They are contributing to the recovery of a severely depleted species in a significant way,” Steinback adds.
Dr. Milton Love and his team of researchers found that the number of young Bocaccio rockfish around only eight platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel amounted to 20 percent of the average number found over the species’ entire range. The federal government has classified the Bocaccio as “overfished” by commercial fleets.
According to Don Kent, president of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, “When 20 percent of the next generation of Bocaccio for the entire West Coast is found in such a small area, you cannot ignore the importance of that area as habitat.”
Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, concludes, “With this data, it’s clear that these platforms should also be protected to help revitalize the Bocaccio rockfish population.”
Editor’s note – At 120,000 tons, BP’s Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico is arguably the largest – and most technologically advanced – moored semisubmersible vessel in the world, notes a June article in Investor’s Business Daily. The Thunder Horse platform reaches through 6,300 feet of sea to 25 wells on the ocean floor. Each well bores another three miles.
Offshore Rocket Science
On June 12, 2008, NASA chose an offshore oilfield service company as the spacesuit maker for future moonwalkers. NASA awarded a $184 million contract to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston, Texas, to develop and test new spacesuit designs.
The spacesuit will come in two versions, one for walking on the moon, another for travel to and from the International Space Station. The suits will allow astronauts to walk more normally and focus on performing lunar geology and other work.
“We’re ready to put them to work and put boot prints back on the moon,” said Glenn Lutz, project manager for the Constellation Spacesuit System at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Our design approach is to make it like walking across the desert floor to look at your favorite rock.”
Oceaneering grew from a Gulf of Mexico diving business founded in 1964. Most of the company’s work in its first four decades involved inspecting offshore platform legs. Today, it is a global provider of engineered services and equipment for customers operating in “forbidding environments.”
“What we are seeing offshore represents the greatest technical achievement of our civilization. I think it is actually more complicated than trying to send something to the planet Mars.” – Richard Mason, publisher, Land Rig Newsletter
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.