Posted on March 20, 2013 at 2:19 pm by Emily Pickrell
Rigs become artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico
One of the big changes to the offshore industry is the diligence with which the federal government is ensuring that abandoned equipment from offshore oil platforms is not left behind.
Fishermen and conservationists have found a different solution for the underwater portions of these old oil and gas rigs – leave them for the fish in the deep blue sea, which, along with coral, turtles and mussels, have developed homes amidst the steel legs of these structures.
After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the 2010 oil spill disaster, the U.S. Interior Department issued an “idle iron” directive requiring the removal of rigs or platforms from non-producing wells.
As companies have begun carrying out the order, however, fishing interests have protested that the structures are critical habitats for Red Snapper and other fish.
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The Interior Department has authorized states to provide the “rig-to-reef” disposal option in certain cases, recognizing that the abandoned metal can be “a biologically valuable structure in the marine environment”.
Supporters say the programs in 16 states including Texas save operators money, benefit fishing and don’t harm the environment.
But barely 10 percent of about 800 non-producing Gulf of Mexico platforms have ended up in the program, while more than 200 have been removed each year since 2010, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
“The biggest problem we have in the rigs-to-reef program is actually acquiring the donations,” said J. Brooke Shipley-Lozano, chief scientist for the Artificial Reef Program for Texas Parks and Wildlife, who spoke Wednesday at a Houston conference on decommissioning offshore equipment.
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Parks and Wildlife has been running its program since 1990 and estimates that companies have saved as much as $400,000 per donated rig.
But several factors determine whether creating a steel reef makes financial sense for a company, including the size of the equipment and how far it has to be moved to reach a designated reef site, said Drew Hunger, the decommissioning manager for Houston-based Apache Corp.
Apache estimates that a rig donation is only economic if the reef site designated by regulators is less than 35 miles away.
The commercial fishing industry, upset about the large number of rigs removed from the Gulf in the last two years, has pushed for a two-year moratorium on platform removals.
Oil and gas operators have resisted delays because the program allows them to avoid liability for the equipment.
But while fishermen are the most interested in the platforms closer to shore, the need for the structures to be completely submerged has meant that only 1 percent of rigs in the program are in water less than 100 feet deep.
Hunger said that companies want to leave as many rigs behind as possible, but that the costs and needed permits do not always make it feasible.
“We haven’t gotten the word out about the cost and the economic limitations on leaving them standing,” he said.