Skip to main content

Rigs to Reefs

Old Rigs Make New Marine Habitats

An innovative approach to dismantling out-of-service offshore oil and natural gas production platforms is creating new, thriving habitats for marine life while saving the industry money. In the past an obsolete platform in the Gulf of Mexico would have been "decommissioned" by dismantling, being towed to shore, cut up and sold for scrap. When the platforms are used to create artificial reefs, needed marine habitat is created while saving the industry millions of dollars, even after 50% of the cost savings are donated to the host State's artificial reef program. The "rigs-to-reefs" approach allows massive offshore platforms to be decommissioned by removing all useful equipment and materials, and then sinking them in a designated location. Once the structure settles to the bottom of the ocean, it provides several acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species.

The first planned rigs-to-reefs conversion took place in Florida in 1979. In 1983, the Minerals Management Service - the agency that manages leasing, exploration, and development of Federal offshore lands - announced its support for rigs-to-reefs programs. The programs are beneficial from many perspectives: within six months to a year after the rig is initially placed on the sea floor, it will be a thriving reef ecosystem completely covered with marine life. Marine life already established on the rig is preserved, as the rig is carefully cut and towed to the new location. Decommissioned platforms make ideal artificial reefs. Constructed of corrosion-resistant steel that withstands breakup, rigs have a large, open structure that allows easy circulation for fish and provides havens for barnacles, corals, sponges, clams, bryozoans, and hydroids. Within six months to a year after a rig is initially placed on the sea floor, it will be a thriving reef ecosystem completely covered with marine life. When it is toppled, the newly created reef attracts additional mobile invertebrates and other fish species and an even more complex food chain develops.

The rigs-to-reefs approach saves the industry millions of dollars a year. Part of this saving is shared with local communities that benefit from these reefs. Generally 50 percent of the industry savings is donated to a host State's artificial reef program. Commercial and recreational fishing and recreational scuba diving prosper from the enriched marine habitat resulting from the conversion, in turn increasing local tourism. In 1984, the Federal government passed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, which further strengthened the program. Louisiana and Texas followed suit in 1986 and 1990, respectively, forming their own programs. Today all five States bordering the Gulf of Mexico have artificial reef programs, and such reefs also are found in other locations around the world.

Louisiana's efforts to protect marine life in coastal waters and the Gulf of Mexico have received a boost with a $450,000 donation from Shell. Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham says the money will help create "amazing fishing opportunities for charter boat captains, recreational and commercial fishermen," through the state's artificial reef program. Barham says the donation complements the company's September decommissioning of its Eugene Island platform and the relocation of the platform steel jacket to create an artificial reef about 100 miles south of Iberia Parish. Since the Louisiana program's inception in 1986, 75 oil and gas related companies have participated. More than 60 offshore reef sites have been created off Louisiana's coast.