Iron isn’t just good for your bones and growth – it’s good for the ocean, too. That’s what advocates of the “Rigs-to-Reefs” program, which converts decommissioned oil rigs into artificial marine habitat, claim. But what if that iron is also steeped in a toxic substance like oil waste products? In a Wednesday hearing, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources heard a variety of views on the program’s benefits to the natural ecosystem, taxpayers, and oil companies.
Dr. Greg Stunz (Endowed Chair, Fisheries and Ocean Health; Director, Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation) explained how these structures provide habitat in an otherwise featureless ocean bottom and testified artificial reefs function just as well as or better than natural reefs. Within months of construction, an offshore rig can host diverse invertebrates, fish (such as red snapper), sea turtles, and mammals. Chairman Paul Gosar (AZ-4) added they also promote diving tourism and reduce pressure on natural areas. However, Ranking Member Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) hypothesized that, while Rigs-to-Reefs is a good idea, “This practice can simply be a way for companies to leave their trash behind because they don’t want to pay to properly clean it up.” He believes the program can work if reefing sites are carefully chosen, decontaminated, and include public involvement. He added, “The ocean is not a dump, and it should not be a way for companies to get out of obligations to plug their wells and leave the seabed the same way they found it.”
Ranking Member Lowenthal also argued that the worldwide expense for decommissioning offshore oil and gas equipment ranges from $150-210 billion dollars per year, and if oil companies don’t meet these obligations, it can fall on taxpayers. Mr. Frank Rusco (Director, Natural Resources and Environment Team, U.S. Government Accountability Office) also advised the decommissioning process has put taxpayers at risk for costs in the past due to data gaps regarding accurate decommissioning costs and infrastructure cataloging, which can lead to abandoned and defunct wells. Proponents say Rigs-to-Reefs is a way to avoid this risk and declare it cost effective for companies and stakeholders alike, providing a beneficial alternative to removal. Mr. David Bump (Vice President, W&T Offshore, Inc.) stated donating rigs saves his company money, and the savings are shared with state programs. Mr. J. Dale Shively (Leader, Artificial Reef Program Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) elaborated; savings can fund research and development for safe implementation of the reefing process.
The need to streamline the permitting process was also discussed, with Chairman Gosar asserting long wait times (for which he blamed “lack of communication between federal agencies”) can be a disincentive for companies to donate rigs, believing they are “better off scrapping the components to cut off liability sooner rather than later.” As stated in the “Idle Iron” policy of the Obama administration, companies are required to dismantle and responsibly dispose of offshore infrastructure within a year after plugging non-producing wells. Mr. Bump lamented how poor communication puts companies at risk for not meeting the one-year removal deadline. He suggested pre-approved permits or beginning the environmental assessments early in a rig’s life to speed the process. Appealing for caution with easing rules and regulations, Representative Jared Huffman (CA-2) warned, “we have to not compromise the safeguards and responsibilities that have to be part of that bargain” and invoked images of toxic waste materials accumulating in the marine food web. “These are serious issues that I think underscore the need to make sure that companies who are in charge of these operations remain on the hook for things that can go wrong” he continued.
All present agreed converting rigs into reefs has many benefits to marine life and recreational and commercial fisheries. However, there remained a split in opinion on whether oil companies benefit at the cost of the environment.