Renewable Reefs

Creating “useful” resource outputs from otherwise “empty” or “functionless” marine space is a defining rationale for artificial reef development. The Museo Atlantico generates dive tourism revenue from a purportedly “empty” patch of sand, traditional Japanese fishing rigs create new habitats for fish that expand the harvesting capacity along the shoreline, and landfills or coastal expansion push housing developments further and further into the sea. Wind energy projects are a contemporary example of making “good use” out of “unproductive” ocean space, creating non-extractive energy, and are expanding the policy reach of Rig-to-Reef programs that claim oil rigs  – in some ways including the capital subsequently produced from offshore oil and gas – support vibrant marine communities.

Wind energy has brought renewed attention to the transformation of submerged structures to productive artificial reefs. Researchers from the United Kingdom are keeping a keen eye on the manifold uses of offshore wind structures. Smyth et al. (2015) summarize the standing literature on adapted artificial reefs and promote a rigorous framework for adjudicating decommissioning protocols (through DSPIR analysis) for offshore wind energy structures. As opposed to retroactively compensating for the manifold damages of oil rig construction, use, and decommissioning, offshore wind entrepreneurs are concerned with the complete “Life-cycle management” of wind turbines, adjudicating the relative benefits of partial or complete removal. To that end, they concluded that the “environmental and economic benefits in partial as opposed to complete removal, especially if habitat created on the structures has conservation or commercial value, is higher.” Furthermore, they considered the legal precedents and repercussions of both options through the 10-tenets of sustainable marine management (Elliot 2013).

To suggest artificial reef conversion for ocean energy and other types of alternative energy infrastructure is fresh air in a stagnating literature around artificial reefs. In the heyday of artificial reef policy development in the early 1980s, there was national attention on the political and ecological possibilities artificial reefs allowed more generally. The Rigs-to-Reef program was established in 1984 and expanded in future decades (see more here). Just as a more critical conversation around artificial reef literature was getting underway in the mid-80s, research was increasingly focused on policy development, not design efficiency or specific standards for specific ecologies. By 1990 artificial reefs had a national program but little further critical attention, and rig conversion was predominantly individually permitted depending on state regulation and case specifics.

Rigs of great size and complicated structure have their own specific benefits. Rigs provide protection for marine species, and can be used for rejuvenating of reef communities (Macreadie, 2011) or protecting post – recruitment fishery resources (Sayer and Baine, 2002). Near-shore rigs contribute significantly more protection than offshore rigs (Sayer and Baine, 2002), and offshore reefs provide a sheltering area for demersal fish, as well as foraging and consuming reef activities (Powers et al., 2003).  This is especially the case given the habitat created by the armouring to protect the cabling and main structure (Wilson and Elliott, 2009).

Moreover, Powers et al., (2003) note that protection from fishing activity could significantly contribute to a regional system of marine reserves and play a large role determining level of fish production. Some scientists propose rigs-to-reef sites  as de facto  marine protected areas, due to their size, ease of defining boundaries relative to the structure, and their interruption of trawling activity (Jagerroos and Krause, 2016; Gonzales et al., 2005;Macready, 2011; Schroeder and Love, 2004). There are certainly specific ecological benefits to a national rigs-to-reefs program in terms of stock enhancement, MPA creation, and coral propagation.

However,  many of the aforementioned environmental benefits of the Rigs-to-Reefs program are fundamentally connected with the extractive economic use of ocean resources. Rigs are, first and foremost, tools of oil extraction with varying degrees of direct connectivity to the ocean floor.  Despite more mobile rig models like semi-submersibles proliferating across the Gulf, jackups and well caps create hard infrastructure vulnerable to storm damage and technological malfunctions. Secondarily, the use of R2R sites as either opening fishing grounds or marine protected areas can benefit the overall health and utilization of existing fish stocks. Most notably, the tendency for fish to congregate around rigs-to-reef structures improves the use of the fishery by commercial fishers, recreational fishers, and recreational divers. Commercial fishers that harvest from artificial reef systems often experience reduced Catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE), a measure of overall cost associated with harvesting fisheries resources (Cripps and Aabel, 2002). On the recreational side, sports fishers and divers that routinely use these artificial reefs stimulate the nearshore economy by chartering boats, guides, and gear. These are the primary beneficiaries that R2R promoters describe, forgetting the primary benefactors as a whole: the oil and gas industry.

R2R programs Costs saved from not completely decommissioning rigs are shared between the lessee and the governing entity. Under the current implementation of the Rigs-to-Reefs program, approximately $4 million is saved by oil companies that participate: At least $2 million of these savings go directly to the government. Between the stimulation of regional economies and the development of direct revenue streams for the governing entity, rigs-to-reefs policy supports the economic use of artificial reefs systems in an environmentally-conscious manner, but at the cost of an ever-expanding portfolio of oil use.

This logic is deeply compromised and pragmatic. Oil rig infrastructure skates across the Gulf floor like a hard rhizome and, increasingly, semi-submersible rigs are floating islands with their own social and professional standards; floating islands tied to the mainland through imagined (and sometimes possible) economic growth while really tethered, instead, to the seafloor. 71% of global emissions come from just 100 fossil fuel companies, the Guardian notes, doubly contributing to a changing climate and our changing seas. So isn’t the Rigs-to-Reef program a band-aid on a larger, spurting wound? Can it be more? The most recent articles on energy infrastructure reef conversion, however, are part of a different energy future that that of oil and gas.


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