More than 12,000 oil and gas platforms are erected in the seas around the world. But, as fossil resources are depleted, they begin to produce less and become less profitable for their operators, companies end up abandoning them at sea. With climate change looming and an energy shift in countries, more and more of these platforms are becoming obsolete. And the big question is what to do with them.
The problem is that getting them out of the water is an incredibly arduous and expensive task. But leaving them to their fate and allowing them to deteriorate is also an environmental problem. Rethinking its uses has become a priority mission.
A sea full of metal “scrap”. The North Sea alone is home to 615 of these platforms and 23,000 small infrastructures that orbit around it, as well as 43,000 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines and some 27,000 oil or gas wells. According to data from the international research team Follow The Money, 85% of the wells are abandoned. Examples such as Denmark, which announced two years ago that it would stop extracting oil from its fields by 2050, give us clues that this obsolete infrastructure will increase.
we don’t even know how much. In fact, according to the aforementioned research, a third of the pipelines and about 10% of the platforms have also stopped working. And it could be even more, since many pipelines that were recorded as retired are actually just out of service. It must be taken into account that until 20 years ago there was no obligation to register the cables and pipes installed at the bottom of the sea. So nobody knows how much scrap is there submerged or floating.
All this leads us to the OSPAR agreement. To avoid this marine pollution and protect the Northeast Atlantic area from the harmful effects of human activity, many European countries, including Spain, signed a treaty with a very important point in this regard: the obligation that when stopping using a platform, this is removed, the well covered and the pipes buried or removed.
The problem is that hardly anyone does. Because? Because it costs a lot.
It’s too expensive. These offshore facilities are actually gigantic steel infrastructures that can weigh up to 30,000 tons (the equivalent of 20,000 cars), as is the case with the British Magnus. The removal of such monsters is carried out in two stages: first the upper part is cleaned and divided to be loaded onto crane barges or tankers. And then the cover is cut off and taken on another ship to land for dismantling and recycling. Finally, oil and gas wells are capped to prevent seepage into the sea.
And doing all that costs a lot of money. The European Commission has calculated that cleaning the North Sea from abandoned platforms will cost at least 30,000 million euros from 2020 to 2030. According to this article by Motorpasión, just renting and using the largest crane ships on the continent to recover what which is at the bottom of the sea costs two million euros a day per ship.
Use them for renewable energy. But money is not the only reason why they persist in the sea even though they are in disuse. There are strategic and financial reasons. It must be taken into account that these platforms can also be key in the energy transition. Many companies are delaying decommissioning because they can reuse it for CO₂ in them. According to the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), reusing 50 pipelines for CO₂ storage could save us €8 billion.
In addition, having facilities of this size at sea would allow oil companies to maneuver new business models in other forms of energy, either by installing offshore wind farms or green hydrogen storage.
Or to create artificial reefs. There are more and more advocates of the idea that leaving abandoned platforms in the sea is good for the environment. There’s a reason these old facilities can be useful: They provide the ideal skeleton for coral reefs. For some species, these offshore platforms are even better nurseries than natural reefs as their towering pylons are the perfect spawning grounds for tiny fish larvae.
In fact, the US Rigs to Reefs program has converted 532 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico into artificial reefs. As? After several years in disuse, they create a surface that provides thousands of nooks and crannies for organisms such as crabs, worms, sea urchins, and blennys to use. These animals then provide food for larger fish and the structure becomes a true ecosystem.
So? Although companies like SpaceX have given them more bizarre uses, such as turning them into bases to launch rockets, or others have given rise to independent micronations, the panorama becomes complex in the legal aspect. On the one hand OSPAR says that we must eliminate them without taking into account the damage to marine life, while the regulations of countries like the United Kingdom focus on precisely preventing activities that could harm protected marine species.
In fact, contrary to what European law dictates, the Scottish Wildlife Trust also proposes that the removal of architecture may not be the best environmental option. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, structures off the coast of Scotland provide surfaces that are colonized by marine species and have become breeding grounds for commercially important fish.
Images: Unsplash | Pexels
In Xataka | The delusional story of Sealand, an ancient floating platform turned into an independent and inhabited micronation