Some oil rigs in California are absolutely teeming with sea life

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In the hazy distance off the coast of Southern California, a couple of dozen drilling platforms loom as dark shadows on the horizon, a reminder of the state’s once friendly relationship with the oil industry. But beneath the surface, some of the rigs are teeming with biological life. Dozens of fish species, thousands of different kinds of invertebrates, and sea lions all call the rigs home.

That so much life exists here poses a conundrum for those environmental groups and Californians who regard the state’s industrial past as a negative. The rigs are aging. Some of them are over 50 years old, and several of them are reaching the end of their productive lives, when they will no longer be able to produce oil.

According to state law, when that happens, the rigs are supposed to be entirely removed. That’s a very expensive and difficult proposition, since some of the rigs stand in water more than 1000 feet deep.

“The challenge with that is that some of these platforms are so big and so deep, that they really don’t have the technology to remove them,” says Daniel Pondella, a marine biology professor at Occidental College and the director of the Southern California Marine Institute.

Two young environmental scientists have an alternative plan, though. They advocate that the rigs be cut off at 85 feet from the top and left in place as a safe harbor for all of the biological life that has accumulated on them.

Emily Hazelwood and Amber Jackson run Blue Latitudes, a for-profit consulting firm that has worked with oil companies around the globe, advising on so called rigs-to-reefs.

As the video above shows, the amount of life on the platforms is dazzling, but that may not be enough to convince everyone in this environmentally-minded state of the program’s merits.

“People in California don’t look at these oil platforms as artificial reefs. They look at them as oil spills waiting to happen,” says Hazelwood. “The public just assumes that oil companies are trying to save money and just getting out of their leases by dumping these platforms.” 

Indeed, leaving the rigs in place could save the oil companies hundreds of millions of dollars. A current California law allows the companies to turn rigs into reefs, but no company has so far taken the steps to do so, largely because the rigs are still producing oil. They also say that the way the law is currently written makes the process too onerous and expensive, requiring the input of numerous state and local agencies. A new law that streamlines the process to make it more attractive is stalled in the state legislature.

Whatever happens, the fact is that the oil is running out, and some of the companies that own the rigs will soon be faced with the decision of what to do with them. Jackson thinks it’s time for a new mindset.

“I really think it’s time that we start to think creatively about this resource that we have, and not have a prejudice against oil and gas. The future of ocean conservation is not going to be us against them.”