On the surface, the 27 offshore oil and gas rigs that run along the California coast are a pointed reminder of our dependence on fossil fuels. Yet beneath the surface, these platforms are home to some of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world, harboring everything from mussels and scallops to garibaldi and rockfish. As many of these enormous rigs approach the end of their production lives, scientists, environmental agencies, and oil companies are left with the question: should the rigs stay or should they go?
Emily Callahan, MAS ’14, and Amber Jackson, MAS ’14, two alumnae of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, have made it their mission to determine the best possible afterlife for these structures. Together, they aim to turn the West Coast on to the innovative Rigs-to-Reefs program, an effort that has already turned more than 500 decommissioned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico into artificial reefs that provide abundant fishing opportunities, world-class diving and recreational activities, and ecological hotbeds of underwater activity.
Yet the issue of how to handle decommissioned platforms is as complex as it is charged—a challenge Callahan and Jackson have been working on for years. “We really made it our mission in grad school and we’re still working on it—to combine science with powerful imagery and a meaningful message to change the tide of public perception around this program,” says Jackson, a dedicated oceanographer with a passion for science communication.
Difficulties in perception arise from ownership rights, liability issues, and above all, overcoming the irony that something so widely seen as an enemy of the environment may be repurposed to its benefit. In a nutshell, the Rigs-to-Reefs process still holds platform operators responsible for removing drilling infrastructure and capping and sealing the well—and permanently liable for any damages thereafter—but the upper portion of the rig is cut and towed to an alternate location or toppled on its side.
Some environmental groups oppose the Rigs-to-Reefs program because it transfers liability of the structure from the oil companies to the state or the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and they also look askance at how the program saves oil companies upwards of millions of dollars on the cost involved to remove and dispose of such enormous structures—some as tall as the Empire State Building. Those savings, however, are split 50/50 with the state, which is required to use the money for marine conservation and education—a silver lining, according to Callahan and Jackson.
“The future of conservation is that you’re going to have to work with the government, you have to work with oil companies, you have to work with the ‘bad guys’ if you want to change what they are doing and make a positive impact for the environment,” says Jackson. “Emily and I are not pro oil and gas development; we’re working on decommissioning the end life stage of these platforms. But I just love the challenge of trying to communicate that there is an ecological, economic and social benefit to repurposing these structures as reefs—not only in California, but around the world.”
In order to convey this message, Callahan and Jackson co-founded Blue Latitudes, an organization that uses scientific research to form a comprehensive study of the ecological, socio-economic and advocacy issues surrounding California’s Rigs-to-Reefs law and program. Blue Latitudes provides neutral and scientifically based consulting services to various clients, including gas and oil companies and environmental groups alike.
Blue Latitudes also has partnered with the Mission Blue initiative to operate a nonprofit organization focused on education and outreach, forging relationships with teachers and schools across San Diego and Los Angeles and developing unique classroom curriculum about marine science.
But the true secret is in the duo’s digital savvy—they constantly update their social media accounts with stunning images from their latest diving adventures and information about their latest projects. They also educate audiences through a YouTube channel called ScienceSea TV, through their website, and as guest bloggers on National Geographic.
“One thing I think we really took away from our master’s program at Scripps and at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation was not only understanding the science, but also understanding how to communicate it effectively,” says Jackson.
And like the world-spanning nature of their name, the ladies of Blue Latitudes already have plans to bring their expertise to waters across the globe. In March 2017, they will explore and assess the platforms off the coast of Malaysia. Their long-term goals include researching the oil and gas platforms of Southeast Asia and Australia, all the while following their overarching goal of thinking creatively about the resources that we have.
“Our general message of Blue Latitudes is to dig a little deeper,” said Callahan. “Rigs-to-Reefs is definitely not ‘Save the Whales.’ It’s not as easy. It’s not as digestible. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot of really interesting science there, and a lot of interesting pathways to go down.”
Pull-quote: “There is an ecological, economic and social benefit to repurposing these structures as reefs—not only in California, but around the world.”