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Scrap the Rig? Not So Fast!

Proposed bill would calculate ecological value of decommissioned oil and gas structures in Gulf of Mexico, aiding long-successful “Rigs to Reefs” program.

Scrap the Rig? Not So Fast!
Oil rigs in Gulf of Mexico offer holdfasts for corals, sponges and many kinds of encrusting organisms that form the foundations of marine food webs. (Photo by Jesse Cancelmo)

Anglers need little convincing as to the ecological value of oil and gas "rigs" in the northern and western Gulf of Mexico. One need only glance into the water and admire the barnacles, algae, sponges, corals and other organisms adhering to the steel legs. Flashing about are vast schools of blue runners and other baitfish. Bigger critters live here, too. Troll a lure topside and you’ll hook tunas, king mackerel and perhaps marlin. Drop a jig and it’s snapper, grouper, amberjacks and more. They’ve been justifiably called oases of life amid otherwise featureless Gulf. Many scientists acknowledge it, too.

Formalizing and documenting the ecosystem value of these structures would have big benefits for the future of angling in the five-state Gulf region, and there’s a bill circulating in Congress this summer, HB 6814, that would do precisely that.

The Marine Fisheries Habitat Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA-6), has met with bi-partisan support. It warrants a fish-slimed thumbs-up from anglers—not to mention calls and letters of encouragement to Representatives.

three young anglers with red snappers
Red snapper caught by recreational anglers at an oil rig off Venice, Louisiana. There is little natural habitat for red snapper in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. As drilling leases expire and rigs are removed, anglers fear that fisheries for red snapper and other reef fish will dwindle. (Florida Sportsman photo)

A major component of the act would require federal authorities to assess the ecosystem value of aging oil and gas structures before requiring removal, giving time for transactions to occur that would convert them into permanent reefs.

As reservoirs of oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are exhausted, and effort shifts, leases expire, and owners of the equipment are obligated to remove it. That may entail cutting up structures that serve as homes to fish—scrapping reefs, in effect. Worse yet is explosive demolishing, which straight up kills fish in the area.

The U.S. Dept of Interior, through the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) is responsible for permitting the placement and eventual removal of temporary facilities on the Federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). To quote from the BSEE "Rigs to Reef" page:  “When an OCS Lease expires and/or development and production operations cease, companies are obligated to decommission and remove their facilities and clear the seabed of all obstructions.”

Since 2010, timelines for removal of structures from leased sea bottom have accelerated, under the Obama administration’s "Idle Iron" policy. On expired leases, platform owners in some cases have been given one year to remove structures.

“In the past, there were as many as 7,000 rigs out there,” says Chris Horton, Senior Director of Fisheries Policy for Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF). “Today, we’re down to 1,096. From 2010 to 2012, there was a huge spike. We lost a lot.”

The goal of the Marine Fisheries Habitat Protection Act, says Horton, is “to stop the loss of habitat, and preserve what we have. ... If there is found to be an established reef-fish community, under fishery management plans for corals and reef fish, and the platforms have these species on them, the legislation calls for a pause in the decommissioning process until the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere decides if it’s detrimental to the system to remove them.”

Horton spoke in March at a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries hearing on H.B. 6814. He urged legislators to support the bill.

“There are a number of corals on these structures which are on the IUCN Critical Endangered list, as endangered and declining, worldwide,” said Horton “But they are thriving on northern Gulf platforms. We have coral growth on platforms that took 40 to 50 years to develop.”

As far as fish species, the list is very long. Horton cited Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) studies linking 48 percent of the Gulf of Mexico greater amberjack stock to rig habitat. That’s a significant point as momentum has built in recent years to promote conservation of amberjack. Red snapper are famously abundant around the rigs, many of which occupy areas of featureless mud bottom.

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In general, NOAA studies have shown fish densities are 20 to 50 times higher around energy infrastructure than open water.

Built into federal lease terms for energy development are requirements for plugging and sealing inactive wells, and eventually removing them. Since the late 1980s, there’ve been provisions in effect for owners of rigs to bypass shore scrapping by donating obsolete structures to established artificial reef programs.

Florida—which has no oil or gas rigs on its adjacent shelf--was actually the first beneficiary of the so-called "Rigs to Reefs" program. Among the earliest deployments (1980) was an Exxon experimental subsea template, in 106 feet of water 27 miles off Franklin County. Two years later, in 1982, Tenneco hauled by barge two Gulf energy platform sections around the tip of Florida to the Atlantic coast, where artificial reef coordinators from Dade and Broward counties arranged for their deployment in 100 feet of water near the Miami-Dade/Broward County line. The Tenneco reefs remain excellent fish-producers to this day, not only for reef fish such as amberjack, but also pelagics like sailfish and wahoo.

Florida hasn’t made any "Rigs to Reefs" deployments since 1993; minimum depth requirements and cost of transport are somewhat prohibitive, and besides, states closer to the petroleum leases now have their own active reef programs.

And they’ve been very active.

From Rig to Reef: Platform of "Beer Can" rig (VK826), long a popular destination for northern Gulf Coast bluewater anglers, has been removed, leaving spar portion which measures 705 feet in length and 72 feet in diameter. The spar was later cut and moved to an artificial reef site in 700 feet of water, retaining habitat value for deepwater reef fish. (Photo courtesy of Alabama Marine Resources)

Texas Parks & Wildlife describes the reefing of decommissioned rigs as "the heart of the Texas Artificial Reef Program." The website has a link to email or phone for would-be donors of rigs.

Last summer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources accepted the donation of the VK826 oil rig, which offshore anglers long called the "Beer Can" rig. Noble Energy donated the decommissioned rig. The platform was removed and the “spar” section, 705 feet by 72 feet, was towed into 700 feet of water 55 miles offshore.

Last summer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources accepted the donation of the VK826 oil rig, which offshore anglers long called the “Beer Can” rig. Noble Energy, donated the decommissioned rig. The platform was removed and the “spar” section, 705 feet by 72 feet, was towed into 700 feet of water 55 miles offshore. The rig owners actually save money, as it costs more to dispose of such structures on shore. Under contracts with state reef programs like that of Alabama, the rig owners also agree to donate about half of the value of the disposal savings, supporting marine fisheries.  “That money goes to our agency’s operational funding, reef fish surveys, fisheries  and habitat management,” says Craig Newton, Artificial Reef Coordinator with the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

For negotiating and implementing such work, one year—the window provided under the 2010 "Idle Iron" policy—is simply too tight.

“From 2010 to 2012, we lost a whole bunch,” said Horton. “It take 24 to 48 months for the process to work, for the platform owner to donate it to the state, the state to acquire title to it. Plus the process needs five federal permits.”

In addition to calling for ecosystem assessments, another provision of HB 6814 would be to offer more latitude for on-site “reefing” of structures. Depending on the outcome of an ecosystem assessment, the Secretary may designate the existing position as a reef zone, cutting the cost of transport.

A rig could be cleaned up, then severed at a minimum safe depth below the surface (determined by the U.S. Coast Guard; 80 feet is common), with the topside material placed adjacent to it. Alternately, a rig might be "toppled in place."

articificial reef
What "reefing on site" looks like: Top section of VK385, a decommissioned steel drilling rig, has been cut 61 feet below the surface, and is being moved by crane and lowered adjacent to the remaining structure in 140 feet of water, some 35 miles south of Dauphin Island, Ala. (Photo courtesy of Alabama Marine Resources)

House Bill 6814 has been co-sponsored by Reps. Marc Veasey (D-TX), Jerry Carl (R-AL), Byron Donalds (R-FL) and Henry Cueller (D-TX)

It has been endorsed by Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, American Sportfishing Association, International Game Fish Association, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and National Professional Anglers Association.

“As anyone who has fished offshore in the Gulf of Mexico knows, oil and gas platforms are thriving marine ecosystems,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of Government Affairs at the American Sportfishing Association. “These are fishing meccas that are tremendously important to the sportfishing industry and coastal communities. We applaud Reps. Graves and Veasey for introducing the Marine Fisheries Habitat Protection Act, which will help facilitate more of these artificials reefs remaining in the water to support the marine ecosystem.”




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