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Platform for change

What to do with old oil rigs?




When oil platforms first appeared off the coast of Santa Barbara, they came with conditions - one being that the steel behemoths would be removed once they'd pumped their last barrel.

Four platforms have already been hauled out of the Santa Barbara Channel, along with two more in the waters west of Gaviota. Their steel roots were lopped off below the sea floor and the pieces transported ashore, where some bits were reused or recycled and others dumped. Several more of the dozen-plus rigs in local waters are scheduled to end their oil-producing lives in the next decade or so.

But now, the oil industry and others are pushing alternative uses for the platforms -- from artificial reefs to fish farms to liquefied natural gas handling facilities -- rattling some environmentalists who say the defunct platforms have got to go. Anything else, they say, is just an excuse.

Not so, say oil companies.

"As time has gone by," said Mike Edwards, vice president of Venoco Inc., a Carpinteria-based company that operates a platform off the Gaviota Coast, "they've realized there are other options."

Any serious moves to reuse the platforms are "going to be very controversial," said Alison Dettmer, manager of energy and ocean resources for the California Coastal Commission. "There's just enormous obstacles in my opinion," she said, adding, "I don't think they're insurmountable."

And of course, federal law requires them to be removed - unless an operator successfully petitions to turn a rig into an artificial reef -- once they're done producing oil.

The idea of leaving part or all of the rigs in place as "artificial reefs" -- like those that dot the Gulf of Mexico -- has been kicking around and inviting controversy for years. Recently, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute of San Diego floated a proposal to operate an experimental fish farm and hatchery at Venoco's Platform Grace, off the Ventura coast. That fish farm would last as long as it took to get the platform set up as California's first liquefied natural gas terminal -- an earlier proposal.

"There's a lot of folks who have an idea of what these platforms could be used for," said John Romero, a spokesman for the federal Minerals Management Service.

Other less practical proposals have included converting platforms to maximum-security prisons -- the Alcatraz alternative -- or, a suggestion made for the platforms off the coast of Indonesia, using them as military bases.

And even if the platforms don't get reused or designated as artificial reefs, another theoretical disposal option is simply to scuttle them in deep water.

Such ideas have renewed debate over the fate of the 16 oil platforms off the central and south coasts.

Countless rigs have been decommissioned in the Gulf of Mexico and in other parts of the world, particularly Europe's North Sea. But the decommissionings that have so far taken place on the West Coast have been relatively small platforms in shallow water - the easy stuff.

Chevron removed four platforms from the Santa Barbara Channel in 1996 at a reported cost of around $40 million. Technically, it was "quite a simple exercise," said company spokesman Ed Spaulding, though it took six years to get the various permits that were required.

"We didn't feel there was really any opposition," he noted.

A couple of the remaining platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel sit in water more than 1,000 feet deep. Removing these huge structures would be a project without precedent, both technically and probably politically. The decommissioning that generated the greatest political drama was the Brent Spar, a massive storage platform in the North Sea that was eventually disposed of onshore after an eye-opening public controversy about deep-water dumping.

No matter what happens here, there will likely be considerable debate.

"They put in all this stuff, said they'd take it out when they were finished and now they're trying to find excuses," said Bob Sollen, who covered the oil industry for the News-Press and later became an outspoken environmentalist. "The industry is just trying to avoid having to remove their industrial debris, as any industry would have to onshore."

Such vehemence was certainly fostered by the infamous spill of 1969, when an offshore well blew, blackening Santa Barbara's beaches and galvanizing opposition to the industry's presence.

"There's no question that the environmental community is opposed to oil companies leaving any subsea infrastructure behind," Ms. Dettmer said.

Many people "have just a visceral reaction," she added. "Get your junk out of the water when you're done with it;' the view that this is all about money."

But is there actually some merit -- apart from saving money -- to any of the alternatives to removal? Mired in emotional and political quagmires beyond the mere technical concerns, that's difficult to discern.

The proposed liquefied natural gas terminal would be the first on the West Coast. Opponents are massing, citing in particular the potential for catastrophic fires at the plants.

The fish farm proposed for Platform Grace also would be the first of its kind on this coast.

Paula Sylvia, the project director at Hubbs, told the News-Press that "research from this will determine whether commercial operations at rigs could be viable, something others could pick up on."

Opponents, however, cite problems with fish farms: pollution of surrounding waters and the possibility of introducing disease into wild fish populations.

The so-called "rigs to reefs" proposals have more of a precedent. In the Gulf of Mexico, more than 100 rigs have been left as artificial reefs. There, agencies representing the Gulf states administer the program and take responsibility for the "reefs."

In California, the state would have to take a similar leading role for "rigs to reef" to happen, said John Smith, a physical scientist with the Minerals Management Service.

That fate was proposed for several of the rigs that have been decommissioned in waters off California but was not pursued for practical or political reasons.

State Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, tried several times to introduce legislation that would enable decommissioned rigs to be considered for that purpose and for oil companies to put some of the cost savings toward marine conservation and research programs.

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, was one of the more vocal opponents, dubbing it "rigs to grief" or "rigs to rubbish."

The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2001, who noted in his veto message that "there is no conclusive evidence that converted platforms enhance marine species or produce net benefits to the environment."

The key question has been whether oil rigs actually produce fish -- acting as nursery grounds, like natural reefs -- or simply attract them from other locations.

Milton Love, a marine biologist, and colleagues at UCSB carried out a six-year study of marine life on and around some of the platforms off the Santa Barbara coast.

He said "they do both. They act as a great big reef."

However, Dr. Love noted that not everyone is convinced by such findings.

"People who like the rigs like it, and people who don't debate the results."

Another option is to dispose of rigs in deep water, well out of the way of most fishermen and far from marked shipping lanes. Again, the issue of "trashing the ocean" comes up.

Then there's the problem of liability. If old rigs aren't disposed of, someone has to take responsibility for them: marking them if necessary for navigational purposes, according to Coast Guard rules, and addressing any problems they may cause. In the Gulf of Mexico, state agencies accept liability for rigs "donated" as artificial reefs. Oil companies pay an amount in return. If a similar program were to be successful here, those liability issues would have to be resolved.

Onshore disposal, though, has its costs in the environmental sense, and some argue that they're greater than if the rigs were left as artificial reefs or put to some other use.

Underneath rigs lie huge mounds of shells and drilling debris, which studies have shown are generally contaminated with oil and heavy metals even as they provide habitat for fish and invertebrates.

Stirring up the mounds in the process of removing a rig may contaminate the surrounding ocean, some argue. Eight years after Chevron removed platforms Hope, Heidi, Hilda and Hazel from the Santa Barbara Channel, the fate of the four shell mounds that mark their former sites is still being decided.

Larger rigs also need to be broken into manageable pieces to be towed to shore, either by cutting or using explosives. That, and the process of hauling everything onto land, requires energy, generates pollution, puts workers at risk and may harm marine life. The seaweed and invertebrates that encrust the platform will perish.

At the end of it all, you might have a clean sea bed, but what about the debris that gets dumped on land, the air pollution and the energy costs?

Also, onshore disposal will be a considerable challenge for some of biggest rigs, which are taller than the Empire State Building and can weigh as much as a million tons. Specialized equipment is needed to remove the rigs and then there's the problem of finding a facility that will process the pieces. Such infrastructure exists in the Gulf of Mexico, but not here. Heavy lifting vessels would have to be brought to California - at considerable cost - and the remains of the rigs would likely be shipping offshore for disposal, Mr. Smith said.

"We have no facilities right now that are set up to do that," he said.

The six platforms so far decommissioned in California waters were all small and located in less than 150 feet of water. But a couple of the platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel -- Heritage and Harmony -- stand in waters more than 1,000 feet deep. Removing them, Mr. Smith said, would be "an unprecedented challenge."

Given the difficulties of onshore disposal, and the push to find other uses for the rigs, the issue of removal has "been very much on hold" in recent years, Ms. Dettmer added.

The technical issues and environmental merits are difficult enough to deal with, but then there's the political and emotional arguments, which often seem to overshadow any other considerations when it comes to offshore oil facilities.

Even if scientists were able to prove that dumping a platform in the deep sea or converting it to an artificial reef made better environmental sense than chopping it up, towing it to land and recycling some bits and disposing of others, many people would object. You just don't use the ocean as a dump, they'd argue. The rigs have got to go, and any other option is just an excuse -- "the industry will do anything to get away," Mr. Sollen argues.

That sentiment was heard in Europe in the 1980s, when Shell Oil revealed plans to dispose of the 450-foot-high Brent Spar -- a concrete and steel floating storage facility and loading buoy in the North Sea -- by sinking it in deep water. The company weighed alternatives for the structure at considerable cost and in the end concluded that deep-sea dumping appeared to be the most environmentally sound choice.

The British government agreed and approved the plan, but the ensuing outcry showed oil companies and governments that all the stacks of reports and careful consideration in the world wasn't necessarily going to convince the public it was OK to ditch a rig at sea. Greenpeace instigated a boycott of Shell gas stations across Europe. One was firebombed, an action condemned by Greenpeace.

After months of uproar, Shell executives decided the most practical option was to dispose of the rig on land. It was towed to a bay in Norway, where much of its steel structure was recycled into a new quay.

Shell could have saved itself $4.6 million -- the cost of evaluating and arguing the case for deep-sea dumping -- as well as the cost of the consumer boycott by opting for onshore disposal in the first place.

Mr. Spaulding, though, said, "I don't think the Brent Spar situation applies here" because the structure was contaminated with oily residue, as it was used as a storage facility.

Any rigs that were left as artificial reefs would have their "topsides" and any contaminated pipe structures removed.

"We don't have any Brent Spars here," Mr. Smith said.

Reflecting on the political aspects of decommissioning debates, Mr. Edwards said, "I still think decisions shouldn't be made by who yells the loudest, but what's the best scientific information.

"Don't stick your head in the sand and say, 'What was written down 40 years ago is the correct ecological way to proceed with current scientific information.' "

Public sentiment, of course, varies from place to place. In particular, what went down well in Louisiana won't necessarily fly in California.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the rigs-to-reefs program was a relatively easy sell.

Offshore oil installations are "part of their industry and their culture," Mr. Sollen said, and more than 1,200 rigs already have been decommissioned there - between 100 and 200 rigs every year, according to the Minerals Managements Service.

Fisherman and divers are accustomed to lurking around platforms in the Gulf, most of which are fairly close to shore, to capitalize on the proliferation of marine life. A report published in 1999 by graduate students in UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management noted that these groups wield considerable power in the Gulf.

But here in California, the authors wrote, there are a great many "non-consumptive users" - surfers, beachgoers, even motorists who glance at the platforms on their daily commute. There's a well-coordinated and vocal environmental movement, and the public generally isn't as sympathetic to the oil industry.

"There's a public attitude here that's probably like no other place," Mr. Sollen said.

The UCSB authors concluded that the local political climate is more similar to that in the nations surrounding the North Sea than that of the states around the Gulf of Mexico.

"Future decommissioning strategies will certainly take stronger consideration of public opinion," they note.

It's hard enough to figure out how to repurpose a massive rig, or how to break it up and dispose of all those tons of steel.

But that, perhaps, is the easy part.

The politics are the challenge.