OSPAR’s exclusion of rigs-to-reefs in the North Sea

Ocean and Coastal Management 58 (2012): 57-61.

This article focuses on how the debate over the deepwater disposal of offshore oil and gas installations has been central to shaping North Sea artificial reef policy. Through a close empirical historical study, this article reconstructs how Greenpeace’s protest of the deepwater disposal of the Brent Spar spurred the exclusion of rigs-to-reefs (the conversion of obsolete offshore oil and gas structures into artificial reefs) as a viable decommissioning option by the primary international treaty organization with jurisdiction over North Sea waters, the Oslo-Paris Commission (OSPAR). During OSPAR’s artificial reef guideline development, several OSPAR contracting parties implied that there is a conspiracy among oil companies to use rigs-to-reefs as a cover for evading the deepwater disposal rules, although they never presented evidence to back up these claims. In the face of pressure to “close the loophole” for deepwater disposal and in spite of scientific objection, OSPAR’s final guidelines excluded all non-virgin materials as acceptable reef construction materials, essentially banning rigs-to-reefs. Because a significant number of steel offshore installations will be decommissioned in North Sea waters in the decade and the most up-to-date science has concluded that manmade deepwater reefs may be beneficial to some species including threatened coldwater coral, this article suggests that OSPAR revise its guidelines. Rigs-to-reefs should be not categorically excluded; a case-by-case determination of the suitability of a structure for reuse as an artificial reef would be most appropriate.

Final version available online at journal website (subscription only) or accepted, uncorrected version (open access)

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