Amber Sparks + Emily Hazelwood | Navigating the Waters of Offshore Oil & Environmentalism

“The reality is that…we can’t turn back the clock. But we can try to find ways to work with offshore industries and find a silver lining — a way to protect our oceans and use it, without using it up.”

Photo by Laura Barisonzi @barisonzi_photo

Photo by Laura Barisonzi @barisonzi_photo

There are thousands of offshore oil rigs across our oceans, many of which in the near future will no longer be actively used for drilling or extracting natural resources. But these structures are starting to give back, as fish, corals, sponges, and other marine species have turned these underwater skyscrapers into abundant reefs teeming with life.

In 2015, Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks started their marine environmental consulting firm, Blue Latitudes LLC, to design sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for environmental issues that surround the offshore industry. They work with governments, universities and oil companies to assess an alternative to full decommissioning of retired platforms, known as reefing. Instead of removing rigs completely at the end of their economic lives, Emily and Amber work with oil companies to remove only the top portion of a platform and preserve the thriving reef below. Not only is this alternative financially beneficial to oil companies, but it also helps maintain thriving reef ecosystems that are important to ocean conservation. 

Emily and Amber today talk about how they’re breaking down barriers between the oil industry and environmentalism, and how they’re working to ensure a positive future for our oceans.

How did Blue Latitudes come to be?

Amber Sparks (AS): We met at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and we started looking into the question of Rigs-to-Reefs and repurposing oil platforms as artificial reefs in California. But we didn’t just all of a sudden come to that conclusion. Emily has a really unique background that sparked the conversation when we met in grad school.

Emily Hazelwood (EH): Right after college, I had an opportunity to go down and work on the BP oil spill as a field tech. We were gathering information on the biota and sediment in the area to better understand the impact of the spill. BP had hired a lot of the fisherman who could no longer fish as a result of the spill to drive our sampling boats around; every time we’d go out with them, they’d rave about how unbelievable the fishing was on the oil platforms. Which seemed strange, because here we were trying to understand the impact of an oil spill, but they’re also telling us these platforms are also incredible habitats and productive fisheries. When I moved to California to go to grad school, I learned that Scripps had a great program that would give me an opportunity to study marine biodiversity and conservation. And then I learned that California also has a Rigs to Reefs program, but they hadn’t implemented any of their platforms into that program. So I definitely saw my pathway forward in terms of what I wanted to study.

AS: Before I went to Scripps, I was working on a program called Google Ocean, where we were taking interesting stories in ocean science and politics and distilling them into little educational posts on Google Earth and Google Maps. We launched “Underwater Street View” where you can virtually dive along a coral reef, and I found I was really passionate about communicating the value of healthy oceans. And when I came to Scripps, and I was talking to Emily about Rigs to Reefs, I thought, “This is one of the most challenging communication problems I’ve ever heard of. How do we talk to the general public or the world about this issue?” It can so easily seem very pro-oil, and people don’t want to incentivize offshore oil and gas, so I was really fascinated by the subject and I wanted to learn more. The great thing about grad is that it affords you the opportunity to ask questions and spend time researching something, so that’s what we did. And after we graduated, it was a perfect opportunity to start a company. We had a lot of momentum going and so we formed Blue Latitudes.

What is the scope of your work with Blue Latitudes?

AS: Blue Latitudes LLC is our for-profit arm, where we work on the consulting side with offshore oil and gas, governments and other entities to look at offshore platforms on a case-by-case basis to determine if they would be successful reefs. We do a lot of ecological surveys using remotely-operated vehicles (underwater drones) and we can get an idea of what marine life is like on these platforms. 

Our 501(c)3 non-profit, the Blue Latitudes Foundation, has more of a scientific, research-based mission in addition to exploration and communication. We do a lot of outreach through public lectures, we speak at universities, and we do all of our research underneath the foundation’s arm. The mission of our non-profit is to elevate the traditional concept of ocean stewardship by uniting government, industry and the community to work together to conserve our oceans. In doing so, this foundation strives to explore innovative solutions to traditional marine conservation challenges.

What is the Rigs-to-Reefs program?

EH: Rigs-to-Reefs is the conversion of an offshore oil platform at the end of its useful life into an artificial reef. When it’s no longer needed to pump oil, the oil company has the option to convert it into an artificial reef as opposed to completely removing it. Typically, when it comes time to totally decommission or remove an oil platform, the entire structure is removed and taken onshore to be recycled and scrapped. All the drilling infrastructure is removed and the well is sealed and capped. With Rigs to Reefs, the operator has the opportunity to convert part of the platform that’s underwater (the jacket structure) into a reef. The topsides are still removed, the well is still sealed and capped in the same way, and the drilling structure is removed. It’s not just the oil companies that save and get a kickback out of this, the state will also get a kickback from the funds that are saved. So let’s say it costs a million dollars (it’s usually a lot more) to remove a platform. If they want to reef it, it costs about half that amount, so $500,000. And then the cost savings is split with the oil stakeholders and the state.

Photo by Blue Latitudes @rig2reefexplorers

Photo by Blue Latitudes @rig2reefexplorers

How big are these platforms?

EH: A shallow water platform can be anywhere from 60 to 80 feet. Some of the deep water platforms can go all the way down to 2,000 feet so you’re looking at something the size of the Empire State Building. They’re massive.

Why are reefs important? What is their proven value?

AS: Reefs are extremely important! When you think of a reef, you usually think of the Great Barrier Reef –  massive, coral communities that provide shelter and sources of food for marine life, and also absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. California’s waters are a little different than those in Australia or the Gulf of Mexico — we have colder waters, so our reef system is more rocky and there are different boulders and soft corals growing, kelp and some of the local species that call that area home, like the Garibaldi Rockfish. These reefs are communities, they’re places for marine life to live and grow. 

How do you determine if a rig is ideal to become a reef?

AS: Not every platform is a good candidate for a reef and it depends on a few factors: first, the complexity of the structure. Some look like the scaffolding of a building – they have lots of cross-beams that can attract life into nooks and crannies, while others are much simpler. It also depends on the placement of that platform: if you place a platform in an area that is highly sedimented, you’re not going to see a lot of life because an artificial reef mimics the natural environment. So if we put it in a sedimented area, we’re not necessarily going to see the same type of marine life as another reefed area. So placement is also a really important factor. The last element is how old the structure is and how much existing life is on that platform, so we do ROV surveys to gather what type of life is growing there and come up with an assessment on the value of that structure for an artificial reef.

What’s in it for oil and gas companies when it comes to converting rigs into reefs?

AS: The biggest benefit is financial, the ability to save costs by repurposing these structures as reefs. And decommissioning is the end of life — they’ve already drilled the well, done the producing, and in many ways, it’s the last thought. Oil companies are very aware of decommissioning, but when the time actually arrives it can become very complicated very quickly. And by repurposing these structures for something for the environment, it’s a great way for them to streamline decommissioning costs.

Many oil companies are also interested in the marine life that’s growing on their platforms and it gives them a sense of pride that they can be used for a good alternative after their original purpose of producing and extracting oil and gas is finished.

You crosscut many stakeholders — ones who are sometimes at odds with one another (i.e. oil industry and environmentalist groups). How do you keep your business focused on shared goals? 

EH: Ultimately, our one shared goal is that we want a healthier, productive ocean, and we want to achieve that in a way that’s realistic. There’s so many companies now that take plastic and they turn it into something good, repurposing plastic into bracelets for ocean awareness or stuffed animals. They’re not encouraging folks to make more plastic, but they’re repurposing materials for the betterment of the ocean. For us, it’s the same. We know these are productive ecosystems — we’ve seen it for ourselves, we’ve done the research, we’ve worked with scientists from around the world on this topic. At the end of the day, we’re not saying we want to save the oil companies money and we’re not saying we have to go back to the ocean the way it was 2,000 years ago. Of course we want the ocean to look as healthy as it was back then, but it’s not realistic. We all drive cars, we all use plastic, we all use petroleum products. It’s unrealistic to say they can’t exist right now because we haven’t developed the alternatives to offshore oil and gas. So if we’re not promoting additional offshore drilling, what do we do at the end of the useful life of these structures? Is it the best option to completely remove it and remove the ecosystem? Or is it better to evaluate it and see could this be a healthier habitat for marine life, as an alternative to removal? For us, it’s not about supporting any one group over the other. We just want a healthier ocean ecosystem and we’re trying to make choices that are both realistic and better for the ocean.

Photo by Blue Latitudes @rig2reefexplorers

Photo by Blue Latitudes @rig2reefexplorers

Why haven’t any rigs in California been reefed?

EH: The Rigs-to-Reefs law in California was passed in 2010 by Governor Arnold Schwartzeneggar, and the law was set up very similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico that’s maintained by Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. However, there were two significant differences. One is that the cost savings shared with the state is usually split with 50% going back to stakeholders of the oil company and 50% going back to the state. In California, that cost savings increases over time. So more money goes back to the state of California versus the oil company, something like 60-40 or eventually 70-30. The second is that in California there is an issue related to the liability for the structure. Traditionally, when a platform is reefed, the state takes on the liability and they manage it for the remainder of the platform’s life, just like they would for any other artificial reef. In California, oil companies already will retain liability for the well in perpetuity, so they don’t want to also maintain liability for the reefed structure and risk having the state come back in 30 years and telling them to remove the platform structure. They want to relinquish themselves from liability for the platform jacket structure, since they already have the liability for the well.  

Another challenge in California is that we can’t decommission on shore, we simply don’t have the capacity or the infrastructure set up to accept these platforms,  so platforms would need to be re-floated onto a barge and towed to an alternative location to be decommissioned. But there’s a massive carbon footprint associated with towing something as large as the Empire State Building for hundreds of miles and there’s also a massive cost. So in California, reefing really isn’t an option and neither is decommissioning. So we’re between a rock and a hard place.

Can you describe your approach to ocean conservation?

AS: There’s the idea of pristine seas and wanting to go back to a time in the ocean where there was no industry, where we didn’t have an urban ocean, where we didn’t have massive ports and offshore oil and gas development, wind farms – all these industries that are using our oceans. The reality is that they are there and we can’t turn back the clock. But we can try to find ways to work with offshore industries and find a silver lining; a way to protect our oceans and use it, without using it up. Our perspective on ocean conservation is almost like urban ocean conservation: we are working at the intersection of these industries and the environment to hopefully find areas where we can work together towards something that would make a positive impact.

What are the different components you measure related to impact?

AS: We break it down into value — economic, ecological, social — and we gather metrics from those spheres. There’s great financial value in terms of cost savings, especially with the funding that goes back into the state towards marine preservation and conservation. The ecological value is more about collecting data and making comparisons over time on the growth of  marine life on these structures — it’s a lot of research and analysis to determine what type of value is there. And then there’s the social value, that’s a fun one that we work on through our foundation, which is outreach and education and understanding how the community feels about these platforms as artificial reefs. Are they valued? Are they going offshore and using them for recreational fishing or recreational diving? Those are all social values that we can look at to understand the impact we’re making on the community.

What can the average consumer do to help preserve the ocean?

EH: Be aware of the products you’re using and think about their entire lifecycle – where are they going to end up after you’re done with them? For example, bringing your own reusable bag is a huge step. A recent study found that almost every sea turtle now has plastic in its stomach. Turtles are opportunistic and those bags look like jellyfish when they’re floating in the water column and for many turtles, their main source of food is jellyfish. So making the switch to reusable bags wherever you go — that’s a major choice. And think about when you’re packing up something to send it in the mail, choose to use paper products, not plastic bubble wrap.  Things like that.

In your opinion, what is the weirdest sea creature? 

EH: The Mola Mola. It’s the largest bonyfish in the ocean and it looks like there’s no way that this creature could function as an ocean animal and not be eaten. It’s massive, it has tiny little fins, the backfin is fused into the rest of its body and its diet consists entirely of jellyfish. Amber and I had the opportunity to swim with one and easily it was the length of our bodies. It was massive and they move pretty fast for a pretty strange looking fish. But they’re very cool.

How would you say that you move the needle?

AS: We really see a problem when it comes to decommissioning — there’s an opportunity to reuse these already-thriving reefs into more permanent artificial reefs. And we’re moving the needle by having conversations with oil and gas companies and governments and saying that this is something that’s worth preserving and worth fighting for. And if we can find a way to work together and incentivize all the stakeholders, it could potentially have a massive benefit for the environment and our communities.



Amber Sparks (née Johnson): Amber is an oceanographer, environmental scientist and entrepreneur. She has a B.A. in Marine Science from UC Berkeley and a M.A.S in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 2018, Amber was recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy sector for her work with Blue Latitudes to develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. Amber also has a strong background in technology. A former Ocean Curator at Google, she engineered and launched intelligent layers in Google Earth and Google Maps that distill and relate complex concepts in ocean science for a variety of audiences. Today she uses those skills in the oil and gas industry to map fishing activity in proximity to offshore structures and inform decommissioning decisions in relation to commercial fisheries.

Emily Hazelwood (née Callahan): Emily is a marine conservation biologist, oil and gas consultant and explorer. She has a B.A. in Environmental Science from Connecticut College and an M.A.S degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Emily was recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the energy sector for her work with Blue Latitudes to develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. Emily has extensive experience conducting both international and domestic environmental impact assessments for governmental agencies and private sector clients, and specializes in developing sustainable environmental strategies for offshore energy development and decommissioning. Mrs. Hazelwood previously worked as a field technician on the BP 252 Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is where she witnessed first hand the destruction and devastation wrought by an oil spill. However, it is also where she learned of a unique silver lining despite the realities of offshore oil and gas development, the Rigs to Reefs program. She is a PADI certified Dive Master and an AAUS Scientific Diver.