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Offshore oil rigs can be repurposed into vertical reefs

The enormous substructures of offshore oil platforms are converted by the ocean into vertical reefs, providing a home for millions of plants and animals. A team of researchers has studied the history and ecology of rigs-to-reefs efforts, and they hope their findings will help to inform California residents and policymakers as they decide what to do with decommissioned platforms.

Study lead author Ann Scarborough Bull is a researcher at UC Santa Barbara‘s Marine Science Institute (MSI).

“California citizens are going to have to make decisions about the continued existence of vast marine life under the platforms, and they should be informed decisions,” said Scarborough Bull. In fact, as platforms age and oil fields stop operating, this issue will come up again and again across the globe.

It is known that the petroleum coming from these platforms has a negative impact on the environment, and there is always the potential for destructive oil spills when oil production and water mix. “Oil spills are terrible events, and if you put in a platform and you drill and produce oil, you always have some level of risk,” said Scarborough Bull.

On the other hand, these giant structures, which rise up hundreds of feet from the ocean floor, provide a very unique habitat for animals in the form of a three-dimensional reef. “We say, ‘oh, we’ll turn these platforms into reefs,’ but as far as the marine life is concerned, they already are reefs,” said study co-author and research biologist Milton Love.

In 2014, Scarborough Bull and Love collaborated with researchers at Occidental College to investigate the biological productivity of oil rigs off the coast of California. The team used standard models and metrics to compare the platforms to all the other habitats they could find data for, and found that the results were staggering.

“Platforms off of California, as far as fish were concerned, were the most productive habitats in the world,” said Love. “More productive than coral reefs, more productive than Chesapeake Bay. Now does that mean that they are truly the most productive? Well, we don’t know. But based on the world literature at that time, they were the most productive habitat.”

“Decisions are going to have to be made about more and more of these structures. We want everyone to have the same facts as they go into the process so decisions can be made on a rational basis.”

The study is published in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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