Hearing reviews progress on rigs-to-reef program

Increased reefing of offshore energy platforms critical to Gulf habitat

Posted on May 11, 2017

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held an oversight hearing on May 17 entitled “Reviewing Recent State Successes with the Rigs to Reefs Program” that examined how well such programs are working to allow energy companies to transform outdated structures into valuable marine habitat. Among those invited to present on various aspects of the program was Dr. Greg Stunz, Endowed Chair, Fisheries and Ocean Health, Director, Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation, and Professor of Marine Biology Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

“Rigs-to-Reefs work and are an effective management tool,” Dr. Stunz told Committee members. “In my opinion, from a practical standpoint and particularly at the federal level, Rigs-to-Reefs is an under-utilized option in the fisheries manager’s toolbox. They produce fish, reduce pressure on natural systems and are a wonderful example of the partnership between the oil and gas industry and resource managers, where both the Gulf environment and economy benefit. However, time is not on our side with Rigs-to Reefs. The decommissioning and removal of what is widely regarded as the largest man-made reef complex in the world is happening at an accelerated pace, and the opportunity to access this habitat resource will not long be available.”

The vast network of energy platforms in the Gulf of Mexico forms what is widely regarded as the largest man-made reef in the world, but due to a variety of liability issues and environmental concerns, federal regulations require that energy companies remove the structures if they are unused for a period of years. Several Gulf states have programs that allow companies to reef structures in certain designated areas offshore, but concerns arose several years ago when the pace of removals increased while little new structure was being placed. Over the history of offshore energy development, nearly 6,000 structures have been placed in the Gulf of Mexico with fewer than 3,000 standing today. Beginning in 2012, Coastal Conservation Association and several other organizations worked with Members of Congress and with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to see if reefing regulations could be revised to make it easier for energy companies to reef unused platforms and related structures in the Gulf of Mexico where they could continue to serve as valuable marine habitat.

The result was new policy guidance from BSEE in 2013 encouraging the use of obsolete oil and gas structures as artificial reefs, and providing greater opportunities for reefing by reducing the five-mile buffer zone between reefing areas to two miles, allowing for reefing in place when appropriate in Special Artificial Reef Sites or SARS, and providing for extensions to regulatory decommissioning deadlines for companies pursuing a "Rigs to Reefs" proposal. The policy further stated that the use of explosives on platforms that are proposed for reefing would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and would not be approved if analysis determines their use would cause harm to established artificial reef sites and/or natural biological features.

“We are encouraged to see Congress continue to take an active interest in this issue because those structures are the basis for thriving ecosystems that sustain an immense diversity of life in the Gulf of Mexico. We would like to see as much of that habitat stay in the water as possible and it is important for the Rigs to Reefs program to be functioning efficiently to achieve that goal,” said Patrick Murray, president of CCA National. “We

appreciate the efforts of this committee and look forward to working with Congress to ensure we protect those structures that are shown to harbor thriving marine ecosystems and are of value to recreational anglers.”