Feds hope more rigs will become reefs with policy revisions

Old offshore oil platforms may be able to hang around in the Gulf of Mexico longer for fish and fishermen to enjoy, thanks to a federal overhaul of removal policies.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has revised the policies to encourage participation in its  rigs-to-reefs program, which allows operators to leave non-producing platforms deep in the Gulf as a artificial homes for underwater creatures.

“This new policy gives states greater flexibility in using oil and gas infrastructure in their artificial reef programs,” said David Smith, a spokesman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, explaining that before the revision, operators sometimes were required to dismantle platforms and move them to an already authorized site. “Now, if a state and BSEE determine it is beneficial to keep a platform in place, the state can designate the area as a Special Artificial Reef Site.”

The removal of a mandatory five mile buffer between rigs-to-reefs will be especially pertinent to the Texas coast. The Bureau initially created the restriction to prevent the platform reefs from being clustered too closely together and possibly disrupting future access ways for shipping or pipelines. But the Texas coastline includes miles of offshore waters that are too shallow for ships, and policymakers agreed to allow states, which assume liability for the platforms once they are adopted into the program, to decide on the locations for their reef structures.

Fishermen and environmentalists have encouraged the changes to allow more platforms to stay put, to avoid disrupting  habitats for fish, coral, turtles and mussels that have flourished among the steel legs of the structures.

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Less than 10 percent of about 800 non-producing Gulf of Mexico platforms have ended up in the program, while more than 200 have been removed each year since 2010. The new rules remove some of the geographic limitations and deadlines that made participation in the program challenging for operators.

“For the past several months, we have been working with our federal partners, state officials and affected stakeholders in the Gulf of Mexico region to learn about their needs,” said James Watson, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, in a written statement. “This policy is reflective of the feedback we received. It provides states greater flexibility in their planning and addresses the multiple uses for these areas while ensuring the marine environment is protected.”

Federal regulations  require offshore oil and gas operators to remove non-producing platforms under an “idle iron” rule that was developed following the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010.

Operators can bypass the requirement if they  participate in rigs-to-reefs, provided that they remove all hazardous materials from a structure, and, if required, dismantle and tow it to a designated area. States assume liability for structures accepted into the program.

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Houston-based Apache, among  the operators that have campaigned for rule changes they  say will increase participation, expressed approval of the revisions.

“We think it is a step in the right direction,” said John Roper, a spokesman for Apache. “The policy changes give us more flexibility and will hopefully provide more opportunities to reef platforms.”

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