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Rigs to Reefs: Exploring the Future of Offshore Oil and Gas Platforms in California

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Emily Callahan (right) and I at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

California's horizon has been speckled by oil and gas platforms since the 1950s. Although these towering, distant objects bring in over $2 billion in annual oil revenue to the state of California, many local residents complain that their very existence is a brutal eyesore and an extreme liability should there be an oil spill. These legitimate grievances may soon receive retribution as the oil wells dry up and offshore production slows to a halt.

With the rigs' potential to be decommissioned in the next decade, California stands at an important policy crossroads: safely eliminating the eye sore and liability of the oil and gas platforms while still protecting the valuable and fragile ecosystems that have formed on and around these structures.

Emily Callahan and I, both of us graduate students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, investigate this question with a mission to explore, understand and try to communicate the value of a healthy relationship between offshore oil and gas development and conserving ocean resources. We are fascinated by the Rigs-to-Reefs initiative in light of the continuing realities of natural energy development and the need to synergize these worlds to mitigate the impacts of offshore development on fragile ocean environments.

Our project involves diving on oil platforms off the coast of California and in the Gulf of Mexico to visually document the current state of the ecosystems that grow on and around the platforms. Employing eight GoPro Hero 3+ cameras, we get up close and personal with the bright-pink anemones and baby rockfish, snapping sheep crabs, sea lions and dolphins that call these platforms home. Through this study, we are working to interpret the essential principles and fundamental concepts of the Rigs-to-Reefs program in order to help the public make informed and responsible decisions regarding the ocean and its resources.

Rigs-to Reefs provides an alternative to complete rig removal in which an oil company chooses to modify a platform so that it can continue to support marine life as an artificial reef. Through this decommissioning process, the oil well is capped and the upper 85 feet of the platform is towed, toppled in place, or removed. The oil company then donates the underwater platform to the state to manage as an artificial reef, while retaining financial liability for the oil well should there be leakage.

To learn more about Rigs-to-Reefs, or to support this project, check out the website here, or follow Rigs-to-Reefs on Instagram @rig2reefexplorers.

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