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Mother Nature Turns "Rigs to Reefs" if We Let Her

Caine Delacy
The California state fish, the Garibaldi, makes its home on an oil rig off California

Emily Callahan was working at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 when she noticed something strange. The workers said they couldn’t wait to get back to fishing near oil rigs. She thought they were crazy until they told her, “That’s where the fish are.”

That experience started her down the path of promoting a program that lets companies turn old oil rigs into artificial reefs that support a surprising array of sea life.

Emily Callahan and Amber Jackson met as graduate students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. They noticed that the federal "Rigs to Reefs" program was popular along the Gulf Coast (the law that allows it goes back to 1985) but almost unheard of along the coast of California.

They co-founded Blue Latitudes to try to change that, in both a non-profit and for-profit capacity. Their non-profit is sponsored by Dr. Sylvia Earle’s organization Mission Blue and tries to increase public support for turning rigs into reefs. The for-profit side of the company advises oil companies that want to turn one of their rigs into a reef.

Why would an oil company take part? For one thing, it saves the company a lot of money. In round numbers, it costs about $5 million to remove a rig after its oil-pumping life is over, which is required by federal law. It costs less than $1 million to saw off the above-water part of the rig and leave the rest for the fish to use as a reef.

That cost savings is actually one of the hurdles to getting rigs turned into reefs in California. When oil companies say they want to turn a rig into a reef, the California public gets suspicious.

“It has the tendency to sound like greenwashing,” Emily Callahan told WCAI, explaining that state legislators will block oil companies from taking part in the program if there's no public support.  

Callahan and Jackson are working to show how turning rigs into reefs is good for oil companies and for ocean life.

They’ll speak at the New England Aquarium on Thursday, September 29 at 7:00 PM.