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A pivotal battle is taking place in the world’s oceans, pitting environmentalists against big oil companies. By looking just below the surface, Emily Callahan ’11 is bringing the two sides together.
By Josh Anusewicz
n oil rig dwarfs a small fishing vessel idling nearby. This hulking, dormant mass of steel and concrete juxtaposed against the pristine blue water and the lush, green mountains off the coastline of Santa Barbara, California. It’s an eyesore.
A scuba diver, standing on the deck of the boat and covered by a seal-colored, neoprene wetsuit, isn’t looking up at the rig, however. She’s looking down at the water. Like an iceberg, it’s what lies beneath the surface—what you don’t see—that holds the most wonder.
In this case: life.
The oil rig and 26 others like it along the California coast are home to reefs that have grown naturally upon the structures, evolving into valuable ecosystems that support local marine habitat. They have become a breeding ground for threatened species of fish, crustaceans and fauna, and provide safe haven for traveling groups of seals and dolphins.
In California, where an overdeveloped coastline has led to catastrophic erosion of natural reefs, preserving these artificial reefs could be the key to protecting the fragile ecosystem. But with the environmental risks that go along with offshore drilling platforms, coupled with the aesthetic concerns of residents, oil companies and environmental agencies will need to reach a compromise.
Sound impossible? The diver, Emily Callahan ’11, doesn’t think so.
PRESERVING ABANDONED and decommissioned offshore oil rigs and converting them into artificial reefs is not a new idea. The practice, referred to as Rigs-to-Reefs, has been utilized in several areas of the world, including Brunei and Malaysia. In the U.S., Rigs-to-Reefs has found a home in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico, where the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, within the Department of the Interior, developed it. According to the BSEE, as of July 2015, 470 oil platforms have been converted to permanent artificial reefs in the Gulf.
Callahan first learned of the program shortly after graduating from Connecticut College, where she majored in environmental studies and interned at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. After graduation, her first job was as a field technician, working in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill, where she witnessed firsthand the devastating environmental and economic effects on the region from the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that oozed into the Gulf.
But she also learned that a number of the more than 4,500 offshore oil platforms in the Gulf—more offshore oil platforms than the rest of the world combined—had been converted to artificial reefs. The sites had become essential for the depleted fishing industry in the region and were helping the ecosystem rebound from the spill. The program was also helping oil companies skirt the costs of completely removing the enormous rigs after they were decommissioned.
The idea stuck with Callahan when she traveled to California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography for her graduate studies. It was there she met her research partner, Amber Jackson, and the two founded Blue Latitudes, a nonprofit group conducting a comprehensive study of the ecological, socioeconomic and advocacy issues related to bringing Rigs-to-Reefs to California. Blue Latitudes uses its research to inform the public and policymakers on the benefits associated with the program.
“When we were researching at Scripps, we realized all of this great information already existed about Rigs-to-Reefs and how it could benefit California,” Callahan says. “So the question became, ‘How can we get this information out to the public?’”
CALLAHAN DESCRIBES BLUE LATITUDES’ work as “half education and outreach, half consulting.” The partners have presented at local environmental conferences, and have traveled to Amsterdam and Glasgow to share the findings of their research. This February, they will present at the Decommissioning & Abandonment Summit in Houston. Callahan has also written about her work with Blue Latitudes in The Huffington Post and National Geographic.
The consulting arm of Blue Latitudes involves close work with big oil companies—strange partners for an organization interested in preserving the environment. Blue Latitudes has begun designing feasibility studies and conducting a net environmental benefit analysis—a process developed for effective oil spill preparedness and response—in preparation of California decommissioning any rigs. Callahan, who uses her experience as a consultant for the oceanographic firm Coastal Environments, said that oil companies have shown considerable interest in the Rigs-to-Reefs program because of the cost savings.
“It costs more than $60 million to close an oil rig, but half of that to convert it to an artificial reef,” she explains.
The rig is converted by either toppling or completely removing the upper section, leaving the remaining “jacket” below the water to support the existing reef. To complete the conversion, the well is permanently sealed to protect the environment and all structures above the water are removed.
However, the oil well itself remains the permanent liability of the oil company; in California, it remains unclear whether the structure is the liability of the oil company or if it is transferred to the state. (The rigs have to be cleaned regularly, as the biomass of the reefs weighs on the structure, causing it to tip over if it’s not maintained.)
Serving both sides of the aisle puts Blue Latitudes in a tricky situation. Though the organization functions as a nonprofit through financial sponsorship from Mission Blue, a global initiative to protect the world’s oceans, they also perform consulting work for oil companies, which involves financial compensation. Callahan says that “staying neutral” is of the utmost importance, and that the majority of their funding comes from grants and donations, and their equipment is donated or sponsored.
Callahan recalls attending a conference at a local aquarium where the crowd was almost entirely against big oil companies. The attendees were wary of Callahan and Jackson’s presence at the event—“those are the oil people,” Callahan mimicks—until they reached the stage to present their research about converting rigs to reefs.
“The tone immediately changed,” she says. “They were saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”
The answer to that question is complicated.
CALIFORNIA HAS EXPERIENCED A LONG HISTORY of drilling for oil in the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 150 years ago, settlers used redwood trees to create piers that were used as rudimentary oil platforms. Today, however, the most common estimates put California’s offshore oil production (with both federal and state oil rigs) at roughly 16 percent of the state’s total oil production.
“The rigs aren’t producing as well as the companies expected,” Callahan says. Within the next decade, Callahan says California plans to decommission all 27 of its oil rigs, with a likely price tag in the hundreds of millions.
The issue with converting the abandoned rigs to artificial reefs lies in the culture. In the Gulf, the oil and fishing industries are what drive the local economy; in California, they make up only a fraction. California’s residents and legislators also lean further to the political left than in the Gulf region, supporting environmental protection over measures that could be seen as benefitting the oil industry. (A similar scenario is playing out in Europe’s North Sea, where environmental groups have rejected Rigs-to-Reefs in spite of scientific findings of the potential benefits.)
For Callahan, this shows the importance of education. Blue Latitudes has continued presenting research at conferences and to media outlets—recently, they hosted a reporter from The New York Times at one of their dive sites—garnering major recognition. This year, OriginMagazine named Callahan and Jackson to its yearly list of “Ocean Heroes,” alongside anthropologist Jane Goodall and musician Neil Young; High Country News recognized the duo on its list of people under 30 making a difference in the western U.S.; and Blue Latitudes was named a finalist for National Geographic’s $50,000 Expedition Granted program.
AS THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION GROWS, so does the need for more research. Callahan and Jackson are currently monitoring isotope chemistry—“you are what you eat,” Callahan says in simple terms—of the organisms found on the artificial reefs. This, she explains, determines whether local marine life is actually living and feeding on the artificial reef or using the reef as a rest stop on its travels.
This ocean research is a dream come true for Callahan. Wrapped in her wet suit, ready to plunge into the Pacific Ocean, she says she’s been a certified diver since she was 12, when her father began teaching her scuba near their home on New Hampshire’s tiny sliver of coastline.
Having spent thousands of hours under water in her lifetime, she’s driven as much by an innate passion for the ocean as she is by a personal responsibility to improve the world around her.
“This is a lifelong commitment. California is just one piece; this is a scenario that’s playing out all over the world. Gathering and sharing knowledge is going to play a huge part in the process, and that’s what I plan to do for as long as I can.”
There’s no way of knowing how Blue Latitudes and the fight for California’s oil rigs will play out, but there is one certainty: Emily Callahan will be there until the end, fighting to protect the wonder of what lies beneath.