What To Do With All Those Oil Rigs?

PCFFAWidespread, industrial-scale oil and gas development of the U. S. Pacific Outer Continental Shelf (POCS) has been a constant threat to West Coast fisheries since the 1890s when the first wave primitive offshore oil wells were originally drilled into shallow coastal waters.

The great oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969, which dumped more than three million barrels of crude oil into the ocean, made it clear, however, that if anything goes wrong with offshore oil development, impacts on regional fisheries could be catastrophic.

Thankfully, and as a direct result of perseverance, coastwide political organizing and luck, our commercial fishing industry, working with our state legislatures and key members of Congress, has—mostly—held this effort at bay since West-Coast wide oil and gas development was last seriously pushed, back in the Reagan administration (1981-1989).

Still, there are 30 active offshore oil and gas leases in southern California coastal waters, 14 of which are producing oil and gas, on 152,578 acres of fragile ocean bottom—and 23 active and massive oil and gas drilling platforms were built in these waters.

The first platform was installed in about 1967 and the last in 1989. In other words, these existing offshore platforms are now between 55 and 33 years old—nearing (or at) their designed lifespan. Plus, many of the wells that once supported this booming industry have now gone dry, with many more expected to dry up in the next few years.

In short, within the next few years all 23 these huge offshore oil platforms must be closed down, officially decommissioned, and then…what happens next?  Decommissioning is not the same as removal.

Will these massive offshore drilling platforms be completely removed and the ocean floor restored to its natural state, as all these companies originally promised in their leases?  Or will they be essentially abandoned (as many onshore oil wells were), and then left as permanent ocean navigation hazards and massive pollution problems?

These gigantic offshore oil drilling platforms are also highly contaminated, with multiple hydrocarbon toxins laced with heavy metals saturating the drilling muds cast off from these wells and dumped at their bases. Huge shell mound piles around the bases of many of these platforms exist as well, allowing these pollutants a pathway into ocean food chains. And of course, their gigantic metal struts themselves are slowly corroding year by year, from the effects of seawater and encrusting shelled sea creatures gnawing on them for decades. A big question is what should happen to these huge metal structures?

 That is precisely the issue that is being debated now, the answers to which will affect Southern California oceans and their highly valuable fisheries—and many widely migrating species, such as whales—literally for centuries to come.  

The Oil Industry Decommissioning Dodges

Of the 23 massive offshore oil & gas drilling platforms in Southern California waters, the costs of actually removing these gigantic rigs has been estimated by the U. S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency responsible for oversight of these projects, at about $1.6 billion. This may well be an underestimate, as removing these huge ocean structures would be complex. This figure also apparently does not include ocean floor toxic pollution decontamination costs.

And there is the additional question of future liability for well leakage. “Capped” wells can blow out and become major ocean oil pollution problems in the future.

Remember, the oil companies that own these rigs are among the largest and most profitable corporations in the world.  And also remember that the placement of these rigs was originally sold to the public on the contractual promise that these companies would eventually decommission and clean up these sites to restore them to their natural conditions.

But now that the Big Oil companies have squeezed all the profits they can out of most of these platforms, and their (also taxpayer subsidized) wells are finally going dry, they are now trying to renege on their original contract commitments to bear the full costs of removal. For years these companies have been trying to get the federal government and state legislatures to help them declare these platforms as “offshore aquaculture” operations, or “research stations” or—anything else they can think of, to help get out from under current regulations and to sell them to somebody else to shift responsibility for what could become gigantic, polluted junk piles over the next several decades.

One of Big Oil’s most successful public relations ploys to get out from under their contractual obligations is to have these wholly artificial structures all just legally reclassified and declared to be “artificial reefs.” Their bright idea is to save lots of money by simply cutting the platforms up into pieces and just piling those pieces on the sea floor, conveniently washing their hands of any further responsibility and letting nature take its course.

Big Oil-funded fake “enhanced marine resources” advocacy front groups also have been created, running sophisticated public lobbying campaigns to convince the public and lawmakers that creating “artificial reefs” out of oil platform junk piles would be a net biological benefit.

If we at PCFFA sound skeptical of the “rigs-to-reefs” programs promoted by Big Oil to get them out from under their contractual obligations to clean up their messes around the rigs, you would be correct.  None of these supposed “rigs-to-reefs” programs deal with massive pollution problems left behind at these sites, and studies we have seen about how much sea life would supposedly reoccupy these artificial reefs, which may be true as far as it goes, do not talk about the dangers of introducing drilling rig legacy pollution problems into ocean food chains by way of these same “reefs.”

Too many of these studies were funded by Big Oil companies which—guess what?—have a hidden political and economic agenda! And none of them deal with the possibility of these old, abandoned oil wells simply leaking or causing oil pollution blowouts.  If these “artificial reefs” are transferred from oil company to state ownership, who then would be on the liability hook?

Fortunately, some legislative backstops for potential “rigs-to-reefs” problems now exist.  The State of California, under a bill passed in 2010 (the “California Marine Resources Legacy Act” (AB 2503) and signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 30, 2010, provides a “rigs-to-reefs” exemption to oil platform decommissioning and full removal obligations. The state is to take title to these “artificial reefs” only if: (a) it can be convincingly shown that the project would result in a net environmental benefit, after a full environmental impacts analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act; (b) a portion of the company’s costs savings is paid over to a new “California Endowment for Marine Preservation,” the affected county and various other existing environmental restoration funds. The Act also makes it clear that the company (not the state) remains liable for any spills or leakage from abandoned wells.  

The Current Decommissioning Regulatory Process

In light of looming ocean oil and gas platform decommissioning problems, on July 23, 2021, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), with assistance from BOEM, published a Federal Register (at 86 FR 39055) Notice of Intent (NOI) to develop a “Programmatic Environmental Impacts Statement (PEIS)” to analyze the general environmental impacts of various ocean platform decommissioning scenarios. There was then a round of “scoping” comments, i.e., information and suggestions on what BOEM/BSEE should be analyzing, including potential impacts on fisheries.

 This NOI set off major alarm bells within our industry. In response, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) submitted a letter to BOEM dated Oct. 14, 2021, commenting on the scoping of such a PEIS. 

The PFMC noted in its 2021 letter that: “The oil and gas pipelines, platforms and other facilities offshore of Southern California are within designated EFH (essential fish habitat) for federally-managed Pacific Coast groundfish, coastal pelagic species, Pacific salmon and highly migratory species.” The Council’s letter also noted that:

“(D)ecommissioning activities could result in a reduction in total fishing effort and lost productivity (with a potentially significant economic and social impact) or displacement of fishing effort to areas outside any closed areas. Displaced fishers would likely concentrate their efforts immediately outside closed areas, resulting in increased pressure on fish and habitat in those areas.

“In addition to direct costs and loss of revenues to the fishing industry associated with displacement of effort, costs and revenue losses may also be incurred by the seafood supply chain. These disruptions could lead to job losses in West Coast fishing communities, weaken fishery-supporting businesses and infrastructure and provide a competitive advantage to foreign seafood products, which are often harvested with far less precautionary management and a greater environmental footprint.”

The actual BOEM/BSEE’s Draft Pacific Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Decommissioning of Oil and Gas Platforms off Southern California was then released on Oct. 12 (87 FR 61628 et seq.), but with a very short comment period running only to Dec. 12. (To obtain a copy, or the PFMC comment letters, see the box below.)

The Draft PEIS analyzes only four different alternatives for decommissioning the 23 oil and gas platforms on the POCS areas off the Southern California coast. Eight of the platforms are already in the beginning phases of decommissioning. The PEIS decommissioning alternatives only include:

Alternative 1: Complete removal of platforms, pipelines and obstructions; onshore disposal of all materials.

Alternative 2: Partial removal of the upper platform to a depth of at least 85 feet; onshore disposal of topside removal, abandonment-in-place of the lower jacket and associated pipelines in various configurations.

Alternative 3: Partial removal of the upper platform to a depth of at least 85 feet; placement of topside removal in an artificial reef (location TBD), abandonment-in-place of lower jacket and associated pipelines.

Alternative 4: No action (always included in order to compare to as a baseline). 

However, the good news is that the PEIS is supposed to be only a “framework” that later individual projects will be able to tier off of to save duplication. In other words, each and every one of the upcoming 23 platform decommissioning projects must have its their own specific Environment Impacts Statement (EIS) process, giving our industry a chance to alert BOEM of likely project-specific fisheries impacts to mitigate or avoid.  

The PFMC’s Habitat Committee is in the process of developing further comments on the PEIS itself, in accordance with council direction. The PFMC’s additional comments and recommendations will focus on impacts to EFH and other sensitive benthic habitats, marine fish, contamination from shell mounds and surrounding sediments, oil and hazardous material spills, spread of invasive aquatic species offshore and within harbors/ports from onshore disposal and cumulative impacts. 

PCFFA—and hopefully many other segments of our industry—will continue to follow this process carefully to safeguard protections for our common fishery resources.  


BOEM/BSEE’s Draft Pacific Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Decommissioning of Oil and Gas Platforms off Southern California (PEIS) was released on October 12, 2022 (87 FR 61628 et seq.). The full PEIS can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/yc4aucak

PFMC’s October 14, 2021, letter to BOEM: https://tinyurl.com/2h8z3mua

Another PFMC letter is in preparation as of this writing, to be filed by the PEIS Dec. 12, 2022, comment deadline, and posted on the PFMC’s (www.pcouncil.org) Habitat Committee website.

The US Dept. of Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) web sites are at: www.boem.gov.

Glen Spain  is Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations [www.pcffa.org] and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources.  He can be reached at PCFFA/IFR’s general email address at fish1ifr@aol.com. He is also the appointed fishing industry representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Committee.