Shutting Down Oil Rigs Poses Environmental Dilemma, Leaders Say

Jan. 30, 2020 / By

A sea lion plays with its tail at the Aquarium of the Pacific on January 13, 2020. Photo by Anabelle Custodio. This story is part of a collaboration between the Long Beach Post and VoiceWaves.

Nearly half a dozen oil facilities off the Long Beach coast are currently being reviewed for a complete shutdown, but energy stakeholders, scientists and fishermen are concerned about the environmental harms that different methods of decommissioning may pose.


At a three-day forum where tickets cost $125 a person to attend, the Aquarium of the Pacific in mid-January hosted environmental experts as well as oil and gas company executives gathered to discuss what decommissioning these and other oil rigs throughout the California coast would mean for the environment–and for those heavily invested in them. 


Ever since its discovery by settlers in the mid-17th century, oil had been among the most valued commodities in California, shaping the state’s landscape and shores. But California’s rigs are now reaching the end of their lifespan, causing rigs across the state to be decommissioned.


The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has been tasked by oil and gas companies with decommissioning, or ending operations for, the decaying structures while resolving the complex erosion and contamination problems they pose. 


Statewide, there are currently four offshore platforms (three located in Orange County and one in Santa Barbara), five man-made islands (one located in Ventura County and four in Long Beach), and one offshore pier in Santa Barbara specifically made for oil drilling, according to the California State Lands Commission.


 Out of these facilities, three of them (Rincon Island in Ventura County, Platform Holly in Santa Barbara, and Ellwood Pier in Santa Barbara) are in the process of abandonment and decommissioning, according to Marina Voskanian, the Division Chief of Mineral Resources Management for the California State Lands Commission. 


During the forum, Dr. Ann Scarborough Bull, a project scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute, explained how both complete removal or partial removal of the rigs poses environmental and marine life problems.

Full removal of the platforms, Bull said, can disturb marine life, since the structures began to house newly-adapted marine ecosystems for years.


Marine life that has inhabited the bottom portion of these platforms will be heavily disrupted, killing off the hundreds of organisms that unexpectedly found sanctuary there, she said.


There may also be risk of the rigs’ remnants contaminating the seafloor, buried under mud, to be released into the water during a seismic event.


On the other hand, full removal might also prevent further erosion of the rigs, where harmful metals and metalloids such as arsenic, lead, and nickel release into the ocean.


However, this form of decommissioning is the most costly and requires more equipment to  dispose of the structures entirely.


Partial removal, otherwise known as “rigs-to-reefs,” allows the bottom portion of these platforms to be kept in order to preserve the marine life that live and thrive in the artificial reef that has accumulated onto these structures over time. 


Approximately 90% biomass and production is retained through partial removal, whereas there is only less than 5% retention of biomass and production through complete removal of these rigs, said Cal Poly Pomona marine ecology professor Jeremy Claisse.


“Minimally, what we can say is that these platforms are among the most productive ecosystems for fish globally,” said Claisse, adding that more research needs to be done.


This is because these platforms create what is known as exclusion zones, which create boundaries to protect oil and gas facilities, according to Joe Nicolette, the Vice President of Planning and Ecosystem Services for Montrose Environmental Group.

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Commercial fishing leaders did bring up caveats to the partial removal option, though. 


Kim Selkoe, executive director of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, explained how partial removal of these platforms leaves these 500 meter Exclusion Zones, which limits fishing space. 


Partial removal also makes the remaining platforms difficult to spot, often resulting in the destruction of fishing equipment. 


“Submerged rig structures snag nets and cause damage to fishing equipment– which is why leaving the topside structure would be more beneficial so as to aid fishermen to better navigate around these platforms,” said Selkoe.


Forum panelists also discussed the option of alternative use and recycling platforms. 


Alternative use would mean transporting oil platforms that are inactive due to the depletion of oil to another location where it can be reused to drill more, rather than building a completely new structure. 


While this is beneficial so as to save building material and other resources, transporting these rigs emits large carbon emissions into the air.


In order to help decide which form of decommissioning would be the most beneficial to the community, residents are encouraged to provide public comments during local forums and public information meetings.

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Anabelle Custodio

Anabelle is a journalist studying Public Relations at the California State University of Long Beach with the hope of giving representation to underrepresented, marginalized, and disadvantaged communities by informing the public of their struggles as well as the beauty of diversity and tolerance.