Environmentalists usually don’t celebrate the presence of offshore oil platforms. But now, some oil companies are turning decommissioned rigs in the Gulf of Mexico into artificial reefs. And that is actually helping the environment.
Jennifer Nalewicki writes for Smithsonian Magazine, and says the federal government’s Rigs to Reefs program works with oil companies to convert the rigs into reefs once they’re no longer used for extraction.
“You’re capping off any access to oil, and then you’re lopping off the top part so that it’s not visible above water,” Nalewicki says. “All you’re really preserving is what’s underneath the surface of the water.”
After the conversion, the old rigs become coral reef habitats. Nalewicki says there’s about 500 to 600 converted rigs in the Gulf.
Rigs to Reefs started as a government initiative, but organizations like Blue Latitudes have also gotten involved. She says the oil companies, too, play an important role because they have to pay for the conversion.
While oil rigs aren’t usually a symbol of environmentalism, Nalewicki says once they’re converted to reefs, they benefit the Gulf ecosystem.
“They’re finding thousands of different types of fish and other species going there and creating new habitats,” Nalewicki says.
In the Gulf, in particular, she says the seafloor is muddy without much hard substrate for organisms to latch onto. So the old rigs can help compensate for that.
While some rigs in shipping channels, for example, are off-limits, some are accessible to the public. Nalewicki says outdoor tour companies take divers and snorkelers out to explore the reefs.
Right now, most of the converted rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico, but Nalewicki says Blue Latitudes plans to start converting rigs off the coast of California soon.
Written by Caroline Covington.