Vacation In Rome? Or On That Oil Rig?

2015-08-17T17:01:08+00:00 August 17, 2015|
The Seaventures Dive Rig is a hotel and scuba school on a converted oil rig in the western Pacific near Borneo. (Credit: Adam Dean/New York Times)

(Click to enlarge) The Seaventures Dive Rig is a hotel and scuba school on a converted oil rig in the western Pacific near Borneo. (Credit: Adam Dean/New York Times)

On a platform in the Celebes Sea — in the next several years, thousands of offshore oil and gas drilling rigs, many of them built during a global construction boom in the 1970s and ’80s, will reach retirement age and require decommissioning. Countries will have to decide whether to sink, remove or repurpose them.

(From New York Times / by Ian Urbina) — While few proposals have been put in practice, there is no shortage of ideas for alternative uses of the platforms: supermax prisons, private homes, scuba schools, fish farms, windmill stations.

Unlike earlier generations of offshore rigs, which tended to be fewer, smaller and closer to shore, the ones being retired now are bigger, more numerous and spread much more broadly across the globe. Most of these retirement-ready platforms are too old for heavy industrial use, like drilling, but not necessarily old enough to demand full removal.

Oil and gas companies generally prefer to sink the rigs because it’s the cheapest solution. Many scientists back this approach, arguing that it creates underwater marine habitats and is less carbon-intensive than removing the platforms. Just renting a barge with a crane to pull the rig apart for scrapping can cost more than $500,000 a day. Eager to attract the tax revenue and investment often created by drilling, lawmakers in California have pushed a bill in recent years to fast-track approval for oil companies seeking to sink rigs.

But critics contend that many repurposed platforms bring more harm than good. Sinking rigs to turn them into reefs, for example, does not actually promote aquatic life, they say, but just attracts fish, concentrating them for easier capture. The metal on the structures, some spanning the space of a football field, rusts over time and can leach dangerous pollution, according to marine scientists. “Oceans shouldn’t be junkyards,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, a marine research and advocacy organization.

The waters here off the coast of Malaysia are being watched especially closely because many of the platforms here were built around the same time, more than two decades ago. More than 400 are due for immediate removal.

A couple of days spent on a converted platform last year in the Celebes Sea, a half mile off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, offered me a sense of the range of possibilities and challenges. “There are no mosquitoes, no flies, no sand to get in your gear and no tiring yourself out by lugging around equipment before or after the dive,” said Suzette Harris, managing director of the Seaventures Dive Rig, during my visit to her hotel and scuba school — a place of breathtaking beauty — located on the platform.

But the sea can be a lawless place and many of the world’s drilling platforms are in remote, sometimes dangerous waters. It took nearly 24 hours to get to Seaventures from a major airport (including travel by bus, propeller plane and speedboat). Because of recent kidnappings and attacks in the area by a Filipino guerrilla group, State Department officials warned me and a photographer against visiting this section of Borneo. The Malaysian military quietly posted armed commandos on the Seaventures rig at night to ensure no guests were kidnapped. As it happened, our trip was without incident; plenty of foreign tourists were also in the area.

Elsewhere, other groups are eyeing these aging platforms. An architectural organization based in London hosted a competition several years ago calling for design plans to build a prison on new or refurbished platforms. “Sea-steaders” have proposed buying platforms to create offshore communities. Their hope is to escape urban noise, crowds, crime and pollution, or potentially to move beyond the reach of certain laws and taxes in international waters.

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