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When oil rigs become reefs, everyone benefits

New research digs into the history, ecology, and pragmatics of efforts to turn oil rigs into human-made reefs.

Offshore oil platforms have an immense presence, physically, financially, and environmentally. Some 6,000 rigs pump petroleum and natural gas worldwide. But as they extract hydrocarbons from deep beneath the sea, these structures undergo a transformation invisible from above the waves. The ocean claims the platforms’ enormous substructures and converts them into vertical reefs, home to millions of individual plants and animals.

While decommissioning a platform is a tall order, a growing number have found new purpose as human-made reefs. In addition to assembling information from across a large corpus of work, the scientists hope the study will help inform California residents and policymakers as they decide what to do with platforms slated for retirement off its coast.

“California citizens are going to have to make decisions about the continued existence of vast marine life under the platforms, and they should be informed decisions,” says lead author Ann Scarborough Bull, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. This issue will return time and again across the world as platforms age and existing oil fields wind down production.

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