Reviving Rigs To Reefs Programs

By Ryck Lydecker

Man fishing at a Gulf of Mexico oil rig
Turning idle Gulf of Mexico rigs into reefs just became an easier proposition. (Scott Sommerlatte photo)

In the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil industry, the jargon for rigs that are beyond their useful life is “idle iron.” But non-producing oil and gas wells are far from idle, as sea life of all descriptions thrive on the legs, pipes, and other below-water portions of these structures. Under federal law, when a rig surpasses its useful life span, or the well is no longer producing oil or gas, the operator must remove it from the water.

Alternatively, and much to the delight of Gulf Coast offshore anglers, the structure may be turned over to a state-operated artificial reef program.

Although rigs-to-reefs programs have been in place for decades under the auspices of the fish and wildlife agencies in the five Gulf states, the process is bureaucratic, time-consuming, and sometimes more expensive than just dismantling and removing the structures completely. But “reefing” just got easier, thanks to a major policy shift by the federal agency in charge of leasing oil and gas tracts to private operators and making decisions about the fate of idle rigs.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), an arm of the Department of the Interior, in June revised its policy for evaluating proposals to convert obsolete offshore platforms into artificial reefs, making it easier and more cost-effective for operators to participate with the states.

The policy removes a requirement for a five-mile buffer zone between designated reefing areas as well as certain restrictions to reefing the structure where it stands, a process called “reefing in place.” It also allows extensions to decommissioning deadlines when companies are actively pursuing acceptance into a state program, and eliminates storm-toppled platforms from consideration.

“We've been working with our federal partners, state officials, and affected stakeholders [anglers] regarding inclusion of oil and gas infrastructure in the states’ artificial reef programs,” said BSEE Director James A. Watson in announcing the policy, which angler groups, including BoatUS, have advocated for the past 18 months. “It reflects the feedback we received and provides states greater flexibility in their planning, while ensuring the marine environment is protected.”