Dozens of obsolete offshore platforms have been successfully converted to artificial reefs under the US ‘rigs-to-reefs’ program. But an independent Houston operator is pushing for rule changes that, its CEO says, would preserve far more delicate ecosystems. Russell McCulley reports.
US Coast Guard rules under the ‘rigs-to-reefs’ program generally require a platform’s legs to be cut and structures submerged deep enough to leave a clearance of 85ft below sea level. But the ‘Save the Blue’ initiative, spearheaded by Black Elk Energy, would allow oil & gas companies to leave much more of their unused structures in place, protecting the marine life that congregates around platforms at shallower depths.
With the push on to clear the Gulf of idle structures, new guidelines should be established to protect ‘the unique beauty and the importance of the ecosystems that have formed on many of the platforms in the Gulf of Mexico’, says Black Elk CEO John Hoffman.
With coral colonies established on many platforms not far below the water surface, Hoffman says, the current practice appears to be in violation of the US Endangered Species Act of 1973, which he says specifically prohibits offshore oil & gas companies from destroying or disturbing habitats.
‘There is a practice out there of cutting off structures at 85ft below sea level,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately, the vast majority of these species exist between 120ft all the way to the surface – various nurseries, species that live at different temperatures and different depths. So while rigs-to-reefs as it exists today is a positive step, it fails to fully protect what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico.’
The Save the Blue initiative would allow operators to leave a structure’s legs protruding above the water line, with navigation aids attached to protect mariners. Topsides would be completely removed, which Hoffman says studies have shown would eliminate the risk of toppling during tropical storms. Operators would be required to donate the structure and establish a trust fund for its maintenance, including anodes to prevent corrosion.
Hoffman says the idea has been well received by the US Coast Guard and Gulf Coast legislators he’s met with. To raise public awareness, there are plans in the works to install underwater cameras on some platforms with active reefs and stream the video online.
This fall, Hoffman and others involved in the project plan to host a summit in New Orleans for ‘stakeholders’, including commercial and recreational fishers, oil & gas officials and industry regulators.
Hoffman says the Save the Blue approach would complement current ‘idle iron’ regulations, not attempt to skirt them. ‘I agree that the idle iron program as it relates to structures is fundamentally sound, and something the industry must address.
‘Now,’ he says, ‘it’s really a question of, if you have a thriving ecosystem, is there a better way to preserve that ecosystem and still meet all of the obligations to prevent pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. And I think there is a way.’ OE