New Life for Old Platforms – Transforming Rigs to Reefs with Blue Latitudes

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In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks, cofounders of Blue Latitudes, on transforming decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Emily and Amber about their lives and careers. In Part I, they explore their passion for the marine world, their meeting and the genesis of Blue Latitudes, and what the company is doing to change how we look at offshore platforms at the end of their life.

Blue Latitudes is a federally certified women-owned small business and marine environmental consulting firm. Recognized as leaders in the energy sector by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine, cofounders Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. As marine scientists working in the offshore energy space, fueled by a passion for marine conservation, these women have aimed to disrupt the way the industry views decommissioning by reimagining Rigs as Reefs.

Emily comes from New Castle Island, a small island connected to the mainland of New Hampshire via a bridge. Growing up in a family of divers—her father was a dive master—Emily and her brother were certified as soon as they were of age.

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“I was very fortunate in that we would go diving in all these really beautiful places,” Emily says, “especially in South America and Central America, when I was growing up. It really fostered that love of the ocean for me, and exploration, curiosity, and understanding our oceans.”

At Connecticut College, Emily studied environmental sciences, as the university didn’t have a marine science major, but she says that through this time, she maintained her passion and curiosity for the underwater world.

Between her junior and senior year, Emily made her way to the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international center for research and education in biological and environmental science in Woods Hole, Massachusetts affiliated with the University of Chicago. “That was a great opportunity because it exposed me to so many interesting and fascinating scientists.” One scientist, Dr. Stephen Highstein, she says, was working on a project with NASA involving toadfish to help astronauts fight space sickness —they [toadfish] have a similar inner ear structure as humans, so understanding how their balance was affected could help understand how humans would be affected in the same environment.

Emily’s first job was as a field technician working on the Deepwater Horizon/Mississippi Canyon 252 oil spill about one year after the blowout.

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“At that point,” she explains, “bp was trying to understand what the full extent of the spill was, and what they were going to have to pay in damages. So, we were doing biota sampling, sediment sampling, water sampling, and it was a crazy schedule.”

Working a hectic rotational schedule and living out of hotels, Emily feels that despite the challenges, the exposure to the industry and its busy lifestyle was very beneficial. She reminisces about the fisherman who drove their sampling boats—most of them unable to commercially fish due to the oil spill, and hence employed by bp in various capacities in the meantime—and how they would talk about how much they enjoyed fishing from decommissioned platforms on the weekends. “It was so strange,” Emily continues, “because here we are, working on this oil spill, caused by one of these platforms, yet they’re saying that they’re unbelievable hotspots for life—and not only are they hotspots for life, but they like to eat the fish that come from these platforms.”

Exposed to the rigs-to-reefs program directly by people who fished from the platforms, Emily quickly came to understand the cultural significance of the program, as well as just how ingrained oil and gas was in the identity and lifeblood of the Gulf Coast region. She continued to work in contaminated site management and environmental consulting for another year before applying to Scripps, where she met Amber. Emily learned from Amber that offshore California, there was a rigs-to-reefs law that was never acted on—a stark contrast to the Gulf of Mexico’s program, which was embraced by the general populace in the area. “That sparked our mutual interest,” she says, “coming from these two different backgrounds, but this collision of two different areas of the country where these programs that are so different; and, expanding that out even further, realizing that there are oil platforms on every single ocean of the planet. What’s going to happen to those platforms?” It was this mutual interest in rigs-to-reefs programs that was not only the seed of their master’s thesis but of their company, Blue Latitudes.

The mission of Blue Latitudes is “to find silver linings in our oceans at the intersection of industry and the environment,” with the company striving to “unite science, policy, and communications to create innovative solutions for the complex ecological challenges associated with offshore industry.”[1]

Amber and Emily work on projects around the world, like designing, developing, and executing ROV-based marine life surveys on PETRONAS’s platforms in the South China Sea to validate platform suitability for reefing; providing Anadarko (now part of Occidental Petroleum) with technical studies to support the designation of a reefing location for a spar hull facility in the Gulf of Mexico; developing a biological assessment to ensure that the Catalina Underwater Pavilions, an offshore installation by artist Doug Aitken, would not interfere with the habitat and marine life in the area; and providing environmental and permitting support to Malibu Oyster Company as they pursued a California lease for growing premium oysters and fresh kelp.

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Growing up on the other side of the country, in southern California, Amber Sparks was drawn to the ocean from an early age, a natural curiosity fueled, in some part, by proximity. Funneling that passion into her academic pursuits at the University of California, Berkeley, she majored in marine science. For the uninitiated, marine science focuses on understanding the interactions between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere, looking at topics like the role of the ocean in climate change, the ocean’s role in climate phenomena and their effect on modern marine ecosystems, the history of climatic/oceanographic events recorded in marine sediments and corals, coastal pollution and its effect on coastal marine ecosystems, and coastal erosion.[2]

After graduating, Amber felt called to do more. “I wanted to take everything I learned,” she explains, “and apply it to the bigger picture. How do I communicate the value of a healthy ocean to everyone around the globe—even those who can’t access it?” As she started working with Google Earth and the Sylvia Earle Alliance—whose objective was “igniting public support for a global network of marine protected areas”—her primary focus was on disseminating research and science to communicate more effectively with the public via Google Earth and Google Maps.

Amber met Emily Hazelwood at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, when the two were pursuing their master’s degrees. As Emily told Amber more about her work in the Gulf of Mexico, including as a field technician after the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the conversation eventually transitioned into the Gulf’s active Rigs-to-Reefs program. The initiative aims to facilitate the transformation of decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs, which can host environments for tens of thousands of fish and hundreds of species of marine life springing up from the skeletons of abandoned offshore assets.

“Growing up in California, I was aware of the platforms offshore,” says Amber. “And it was hard to believe that reefs could be thriving beneath the surface?”

Amber and Emily’s passion aligned on the topic of reefing decommissioned platforms, and both women were curious if the success seen in the Gulf of Mexico could be replicated offshore California. They ended up writing their master’s thesis on just this topic.

Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes and the company’s charity arm, and how their quest to showcase the marine environments and life around reefed platforms is driving a rethinking of Rigs-to-Reefs programs in different waters around the world.



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