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 II of the article, Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes, 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.
What exactly does it mean when discussing turning rigs into artificial reefs, though? In a document jointly developed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the California State Lands Commission, the three agencies lay out what they call “A Citizen’s Guide to Offshore Oil and Gas Decommissioning in Federal Waters Off California.” In the report, the agencies provide an overview of decommissioning of oil and gas facilities in the Pacific and potential use cases for the platforms once decommissioning is completed. The report provides an excellent definition of the rigs-to-reefs program, as well as the methods whereby a platform can be transformed into an artificial reef:
“Rigs-to-Reefs is a process where operators choose to donate – rather than scrap – decommissioned oil and gas platforms to coastal states to serve as artificial reefs under the National Artificial Reef Plan.
Decommissioned structures are typically toppled in place, partially removed near the surface, or towed to existing reef sites or reef planning areas. Decommissioning platforms attract various encrusting organisms such as barnacles and bivalves, which colonize on them and produce fish and other marine life as found on natural reefs. Studies conducted in California and elsewhere suggest a positive relationship between fishing, fish, and oil and gas structures in the marine environment.”
Though the projects Amber and Emily pursue are varied in scope and purpose, helping accelerate the development and adoption of the rigs-to-reefs program offshore California is their passion—and their greatest challenge. “There have been other efforts in the past in California,” Emily says, “to make rigs-to-reefs a reality, but they went about it in a way that was not transparent at all. But people are smart; they do their homework.” For these reasons, Amber and Emily have a section on their website that is dedicated to some of the arguments against the very thing that they’re trying to do. They feel, however, that the science will speak for itself, and that intelligent people will be able to make a clear, rational decision based on the facts.
Early success saw Amber and Emily gaining more and more traction, with people reaching out for media appearances and promotional marketing. As the positive press piled up—from the likes of The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and NPR, among others—and the two entrepreneurs felt that the issues their company was combatting were coming into sharper focus, they decided to apply for the well-known Forbes 30 Under 30 program in the “Energy” category. The rest, as they say, is history, with Blue Latitudes being a winner and Amber and Emily inducted into the growing list of visionaries and changemakers who had also won the award. The accolades from winning go way beyond a virtual gold star, with Amber saying,
“It’s been a great way to connect with other young, like-minded leaders and entrepreneurs in the energy space.”
Emily emphasizes that this wasn’t your average networking, like growing a followership on LinkedIn or going to a happy hour event to hand out business cards; rather, this was a golden opportunity to make inroads with some of the best and brightest minds in the world.
In the United States, oil companies are responsible for all decommissioning costs. When a structure is reefed, there are often significant cost savings associated with the partial removal of the platform jacket.
In actively working on the rigs-to-reefs program, oil companies can reaffirm their commitment to the often lofty, but equally as often unquantified, environmental and social goals outlined in their sustainability reports and investor relations decks. It’s about making a tangible impact on the world, using an old asset to provide a place where life will flourish and grow—an oil company’s legacy, you might say, rising from the remains, the cycle beginning anew. You can’t really put a price on that.
There’s some pretty amazing stuff going on out there in the ocean, Amber says, things that most people never get the chance to see or learn about. For her, the most fascinating marine life is found not on traditional fixed-platform jackets being repurposed but in the deep sea, on subsea equipment and on the seafloor, for example.
“I’m interested in seeing how marine life can colonize and grow in these really intense environments that you find in the super deep sea,” Amber says. “No light, extreme pressure, extremely cold, yet we see marine life colonizing and growing down there; not the kind you see above on the platforms, something entirely different. We’ve seen some crazy creatures down there, and even made some new discoveries.”
By working with the oil companies to deploy an ROV to these deepwater subsea installations, Amber and Emily also gain access to sites that many researchers only dream of being able to study, locations too deep and too unknown to be reached by anyone without the most cutting-edge equipment. By bringing these environments to life with 4K photography and video taken by the ROV, they say, they can open a world for people so that they can better understand why Blue Latitudes does the work it does.
Amber and Emily are not only doing meaningful work via their technical projects with Blue Latitudes but also through the charity arm of their company, the Blue Latitudes Foundation. The future of ocean conservation, Amber and Emily agree, is no longer an us-versus-them scenario; rather, what needs to be done is to align and find opportunities to work together to conserve oceans and marine life. The foundation enjoys granting relationships with several organizations, one of them Patagonia, who many in the oil industry know for its fervently anti-oil stance and refusing to put logos of oil and finance companies on their clothing. It’s an interesting departure, and one that Emily attributes to the nature of the work that they do. “Amber and I weren’t going around and preaching, ‘keep drilling for offshore oil,’ because don’t worry, you can reef them!” Emily says. “We’re trying to walk an even path by saying, we’re dealing with the end of life for these structures. What’s the best option for them?”
Amber and Emily have seen major successes so far through their work, including preserving more than 24 acres of habitat on repurposed oil rigs and saving more than 56,000 fish. They’re doing their part in the fight to advance a rigs-to-reefs program in California by petitioning the State Senate to make the program an option, as it is in the Gulf of Mexico. Education and outreach are also critical components of the foundation’s mission, with the two women giving dozens of speeches and presentations across more than 10 countries to improve knowledge and understanding of marine science and biology, the opportunities and constraints of reefing, and how such a program can be developed for oceans around the world. Donations and grants to the charity arm of the business fund these important initiatives and help tell the story of what Amber and Emily do.
Of course, the water-loving duo don’t just talk the talk when it comes to diving—they also walk the walk. Amber is an advanced diver, while Emily is a dive master, and both are scientific divers, as well. Significant experience diving for both business and pleasure has seen them in locations dotted from one side of the planet to the other, sometimes well-known, sometimes exotic. The two will sometimes dive with small, handheld ROVs, which are attached to a tether, to allow them to see further down than their equipment will take them yet still get the diving experience of themselves being underwater. And, as you’d expect, they most certainly dive in the artificial reefs born of decommissioned platforms. When passion and purpose align, the possibilities truly are limitless.