The world’s oceans are home to tens of thousands of abandoned offshore oil rigs. There are more than 32,000 in United States waters alone, and the United Kingdom’s North Sea hasn’t fared much better, with more and more rigs being decommissioned all the time as developed oil fields age out and global energy markets and energy policies increasingly shift away from fossil fuels. These abandoned platforms can pose serious environmental risks if improperly or inadequately managed. International convention Ospar dictates that these rigs must be removed from our waters worldwide – but some scientists are finding that, if properly decommissioned, maintained, and/or retrofitted, these oil rigs can potentially offer some considerable environmental benefits.
In the United States, more than half – approximately 58% – of the 55,000 wells managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) are either permanently or temporarily abandoned. This is a massive figure. For context, the BOEM manages more than 2,000 active oil and gas leases across 10.9 million acres of North America’s Outer Continental Shelf.
The scale of the abandoned infrastructure directly correlates with the scale of risk posed by the orphaned rigs. Improperly decommissioned or maintained wells are “more likely to leak or spill oil or gas into the ocean, which endangers sea life and delicate marine environments, threatens coastal communities, and impacts the economy as well,” reports Arnold & Itkin. “Corrosion, storm damage, and environmental exposure can make abandoned platforms and wells ticking timebombs.”
In fact, the Taylor Energy oil spill, the longest-running oil spill in all of U.S. history, originated from an orphaned offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill started in 2004 when the platform was hit by Hurricane Ivan – and is still leaking today. According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the tapped reserves are enough to sustain the spill beyond 2100 if the leak is not contained.
But these negative environmental externalities could not only be abated with appropriate management, it could be turned on its head. Already, abandoned oil rigs in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico – among other waters around the world – are providing highly valuable synthetic reefs for local marine life. In fact, in the United Kingdom as well as the United States, activists have protested the removal of such abandoned rigs in the interest of preserving the marine ecosystem. “For some species, the rigs are even better nurseries than natural reefs," Future Planet reported in 2021. “The towering pylons are the perfect spawning grounds for tiny fish larvae.”
In addition to their function as stand-in reefs, the abandoned oil rigs could become doubly advantageous for the environment if they are retrofitted to capture and sequester carbon from the atmosphere and the oceans. “The rigs possess the capability to store CO? using the on-board equipment that was previously used to extract oil and natural gas, except it would, with minor modifications, be operated in reverse,” The Conversation recently reported, citing scientific findings from Denmark’s Project Greensands. And research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that pulling carbon directly from the ocean waters could be even more efficient.
While this is a promising repurposing of these potentially hazardous abandoned rigs, however, there are some serious drawbacks to carbon sequestration in the bigger picture. Many experts maintain that the primary purpose of carbon capture and storage is corporate greenwashing – it’s a practice that allows companies to claim environmental do-goodery while continuing to extract fossil fuels and emit more and more carbon emissions while using carbon offsetting as a convenient excuse.
A nuanced conversation around repurposing orphan rigs is clearly essential to the responsible scaling and stewardship of such an endeavor. But if managed correctly, ethically, and transparently, such schemes could provide essential environmental harm reduction and even net benefits.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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