Thousands of offshore petroleum platforms provide energy and habitats.


Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating ideal marine habitats. Beginning with an Exxon experimental subsea structure in 1979, the “Rigs to Reefs” program has formed the largest artificial reef habitat in the world.


rigs to reefs

Offshore platforms make good artificial reefs. The open design attract fish – and divers – where they can swim easily through the circulating water.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress signed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, “because of increased interest and participation in fishing at offshore oil and gas platforms and widespread support for effective artificial reef development by coastal states,” according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). This led to the development of the National Artificial Reef Plan the next year.

Gulf of Mexico federal offshore oil production in 2016 accounted for 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and five percent of natural gas production, notes the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Over 45 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf coast, as well as 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity,” EIA reported. By 2016, there were about 4,500 petroleum-related platforms offshore; thanks to the federal program, they benefit both the economy and the environment.

rigs to reefs

A typical four-pile platform provides almost three acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of species. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. They form the largest artificial reef complex in the world.

The industry-government partnership is a Gulf of Mexico success story, notes an article in Ocean Science, the Minerals Management Service quarterly magazine.

Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. Today, they form the world’s largest artificial reef complex.

Although Rigs to Reefs developed as an official policy in the mid-1980s, the concept was first explored in 1979. The National Artificial Reef Plan led to development of government-endorsed artificial reef projects.

The first planned conversion took place in 1979 with the re-location of an Exxon experimental subsea structure from offshore Louisiana to an artificial reef site off Apalachicola, Florida.

In 1984, the National Fishing Enhancement Act established national artificial reef standards.

MMS then developed policies encouraging the reuse of obsolete offshore petroleum structures – requiring compliance with standards of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the criteria in the National Artificial Reef Plan of 1985, which allowed states to plan, construct, and manage artificial reefs.

Benefits to Marine Environment

rigs to reefs

Companies utilize tow-and-place, topple-in-place, or partial removal for old rigs.

Petroleum platforms are artificial habitats. Whether placed as an artificial reef or a working (producing petroleum) structure, they have been found to increase the algae and invertebrates that at-tract and significantly increase the numbers and species of fish.

However, when an offshore structure becomes obsolete, it typically is removed from the environment, taking away the habitat that it created and disrupting those organisms residing at the site.

To prevent this disruption, the Rig to Reefs program  allows oil and natural gas companies to choose to donate the reef to a coastal state – using one of three methods: tow-and-place, topple-in-place, or partial removal.

The program benefits petroleum platform owners by eliminating the high cost of transporting the structure for disposal. States benefit as the platform develops into an area that enhances commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and the biological community.

According to MMS, the participating states benefit through cost sharing with industry. Typically, the petroleum company donates half of its savings to state coffers. The populations that result from the recycled structures are called platform communities.

Fish densities have been found to be 20 to 50 times higher than in open water. Each platform typically supports more than 10,000 fish.

In addition to fish, the platforms are home to many other forms of sea life; barnacles and mussels dwell on the hard surfaces, and sea turtles are often found close by.

rigs to reefs

Coastal states benefit from offshore platforms: Seventy-five percent of recreational fishing trips in Louisiana visit one or more rig sites — for the excellent fishing.

The result is a complex food chain formed in environments that did not previously have the characteristics to support a natural reef community.

Seventy-five percent of recreational fishing trips in Louisiana visit one or more rig sites. These platforms are an ideal choice for artificial reefs.

Their size, density, and open design attract fish to the structures where they can swim easily through the circulating water. The structures are very stable during storms.

The platforms also provide the hard surface needed to create coral communities. As a result, MMS is working with the Coastal Marine Institute at Louisiana State University to study artificial reef corals. Another study is looking at the ecological effects of removing large numbers of petroleum structures.

In southern California, the populations of fish living in platform communities are the subject of several research projects. With many areas overfished, the increased population of fish at artificial reefs could be very valuable. The petroleum platforms in the Gulf of Mexico set the example.

“The fishing here is spectacular, whether it’s snapper, amberjack or grouper,” concludes charter boat Capt. Kerry Milano of Venice, La. “There’s really no limit to what you can catch at these offshore platforms. This is some of the best fishing anywhere in the world.”

Editor’s Note – Adapted from Ocean Science, March 2008,  published quarterly that provides outstanding ocean science and technological information. Learn more at the The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Offshore Stats and Facts.

Habitat for Overfished Species

Whether it is an operating production platform or a retired rig intentionally placed, a typical four-pile, platform jacket provides almost three acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species. That’s a good thing, according to marine biologists, because the natural bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat.

rigs to reefs

“With this data, it’s clear that these platforms should also be protected to help revitalize the Bocaccio rockfish population.”

A June 2006 report by marine scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrates that California’s offshore oil and natural gas platforms are critical nursery habitat for a certain species of fish.

According to the scientists, platforms play an important role in producing the young of a rockfish species on a scale that was previously unknown.

The findings have the potential to cause a significant shift in conventional thinking regarding artificial reefs. “This will have a huge impact on how we view these structures,” notes George Steinbach, executive director of the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Program.

“These platforms are better nursery habitat than the natural reefs in the area. They are contributing to the recovery of a severely depleted species in a significant way,” Steinback adds.

Dr. Milton Love and his team of researchers found that the number of young Bocaccio rockfish around only eight platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel amounted to 20 percent of the average number found over the species’ entire range. The federal government has classified the Bocaccio as “overfished” by commercial fleets.

According to Don Kent, president of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, “When 20 percent of the next generation of Bocaccio for the entire West Coast is found in such a small area, you cannot ignore the importance of that area as habitat.”

Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, concludes, “With this data, it’s clear that these platforms should also be protected to help revitalize the Bocaccio rockfish population.”

Learn more about offshore exploration technology in Deep Sea Roughnecks and Rov – Swimming Socket Wrench.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Rigs to Reefs.” Author: Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: March 2, 2020. Original Published Date: June 1, 2008.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This