October 17, 2014, by Peter Brewitt
Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Photographs courtesy of NOAA Fisheries West Coast and Mark Edley.
It’s a long drive down the coast from Santa Cruz to LA, but the heart-lifting sweep of Pacific Ocean away to the right makes the miles roll by as easily as the waves. The coast is only lightly developed for long stretches—rugged cliffs lend themselves to BMW ads but not to towns—and the ocean-scape is only broken by sea stacks, foam, and the occasional gray whale.
But when you approach Santa Barbara, oil rigs* jut from the water like pimples on an eighth-grader. This is where our energy infrastructure begins, with enormous steel islands drilling almost a mile under the seabed. Sometimes, as you surely know, they rupture: in 1969, one of them leaked three or four million gallons of crude oil onto beaches and helped kickstart the environmental movement. There are twenty-seven such rigs bobbing off the California coast—operated by Chevron, Exxon, and smaller firms—and while they’re mostly well-maintained, the question remains: when the well goes dry, what should we do with the gear? In recent years, a movement has begun in coastal states from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean to turn these oil suckers into artificial reefs.
While it would be better for the environment not to drill at all, that’s not the question here. This stuff has already been built. Now that it’s getting old, is it better to blow the platforms off of their anchors, tow the metal out, and scrap it someplace? Or is it better to simply let nature assert its claim?