Sinking Prospect: Oil Rigs and Greenpeace in the North Sea

Henrik Lundholm Andersen/Flickr
Despite evident success in the Gulf of Mexico, oil rigs in the North Sea, like this one, cannot be sunk at the end of their lifetimes for conversion to artificial reefs, says the author.

In March 1995, after several years of study, the oil company Esso proposed to the Norwegian government that they be allowed to sink the steel understructure of an offshore platform named Odin after its petroleum production days were over. This pilot project offered the possibility to determine the viability of turning offshore oil structures into artificial reefs in the North Sea, an idea called rigs-to-reefs. Esso’s plan might have been approved, but before it could be considered in Parliament, something happened off the coast of Britain that changed everything. In a high-profile protest, a group of Greenpeace activists occupied a decommissioned oil platform that Shell was planning to scuttle at sea. It proved a success for Greenpeace, but constituted a significant setback for rigs-to-reefs efforts in the North Sea. As part of their campaign, Greenpeace and other environmentalists conflated the potentially benign or even useful creation of artificial reefs from obsolete offshore structures with the practice of deep sea dumping. And although many scientists believed rigs-to-reefs had scientific merit, international environmental politics overrode those opinions.

Odin as Reef

Both the Norwegian Oil Directorate and the Commerce and Energy Department approved of Esso’s proposal, sending their recommendation on to the Norwegian Parliament. Two independent research institutes, Rogaland Research (now part of the International Research Institute of Stavanger) and the Institute of Marine Research, had been involved in drafting Esso’s plan, which included taking the deck to land, laying the legs out as reef, and Esso paying 16 million Norwegian Kroner (NOK; approximately US $2.5 million at the time) for five years of scientific studies. According to the report, there was no danger of pollution from the understructure because all harmful material would be removed.1 The rigs-to-reefs plan would also be cost efficient, saving Esso and the Norwegian taxpayers (who pick up 60 percent of the decommissioning bill) NOK 150 million (about $25 million).2

Such a plan made sense in March 1995. The oil and gas industry had experienced great successes with rigs-to-reefs programs in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s first offshore structure was converted in 1987.3 By October 1994, Louisiana had placed more than 40 structures in 14 designated reefing sites in the Gulf. The program was heralded as a “winning situation for all involved” because of the reduced costs for the oil companies, increased fish populations, and increased sports fisherman catches and related revenues.4 In Texas and Louisiana, the oil company donates the structure along with 50 percent of the monetary savings to the Artificial Reef Program. That basically pays for the programs to run at no cost to the states. (Because rigs-to-reefs has never been sanctioned in the North Sea, no financial arrangements about it have ever been made). Scientists working in the North Sea noticed these successes. As early as 1988, Gordon Picken, a marine biologist at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, advocated research into the reef conversion of North Sea platforms to see if they could have positive results like the Gulf of Mexico program.5 Media coverage of the Odin plan made explicit reference to the Gulf of Mexico successes.6 But before the Odin plan could be considered in the Norwegian parliament, Greenpeace’s occupation of Shell’s Brent Spar, an offshore loading buoy scheduled for decommissioning, radically affected the context of the proposal and the ways in which it was understood by politicians.


A 1995 Greenpeace campaign against the sinking of Shell’s Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea contributed to the perception of rigs-to-reefs programs as “dumping.”

Brent Spar: Turning the Tide

On April 30, 1995, only one month after the Odin proposal was submitted, Greenpeace began its occupation of Brent Spar. Two months before, the UK government had approved Shell’s plans to dispose of (or “dump” as Greenpeace would label it) Brent Spar in the mid-Atlantic. There was an immediate backlash from environmentalists and fishermen.7 They objected to the pollution that would have resulted from disposing of Brent Spar in an ocean trench, and worried that it would set a precedent for regular disposal of structures in this way. Protestors boarded the facility on April 30 and occupied the platform for 24 days before being removed by Shell. They reoccupied the platform on June 16. During the occupation, Greenpeace successfully spearheaded a boycott of Shell in Europe that captured significant media attention.8

The international legislative community quickly responded to the Greenpeace campaign. The momentum was mounting for a total ban of at-sea disposal of oil installations. At the North Sea Conference on June 7, Denmark’s delegation asked for an international prohibition on “dumping” of platforms, although Norway, the UK, and France did not approve the suggestion, making the decision non-binding for them. Later, all countries would agree with Greenpeace’s position that deep water disposal was not an appropriate disposal option for offshore structures except in exceptional circumstances.

On June 20, in the face of the second reoccupation and mounting international protests and boycotts against the business, Shell decided not to scuttle Brent Spar. The aftermath began the next day with the governments of Germany and Denmark calling for a total ban on “rig dumping.” “This is only the beginning,” said European Union Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard. “Now we will work for a total ban on dumping of offshore installations in the sea.”9 At the meeting of the Oslo-Paris Commission (OSPAR) on June 29, 1995, all countries except Norway and the UK ratified a total ban on oil platform dumping.10

In spite of mounting international pressure, Jens Petter Abel of Rogaland Research, who had been involved in the rigs-to-reefs research for the Odin proposal, presented results showing the potential positive environmental effects of North Sea rigs-to-reefs at a conference in August 1995. Fishery organizations loudly protested the report: “We are appalled that waste like this can be left on the sea floor and called an artificial reef.”11 Greenpeace threatened action, including a European-wide boycott of Norwegian fish, if the Odin steel structure was sunk. Greenpeace claimed that the North Sea is too deep and is not inhabited by the right kind of fish for an artificial reef, despite Abel’s scientific conclusions.12

Within this politically charged atmosphere, the Norwegian Ministry of Industry and Energy sent Esso’s environmental impact report to the main fishery organization and five environmental groups for comment. Although some fishermen believed the Odin reef had the potential to increase fish populations, vocal objections to reefs as a trawling hindrance arose. The Norwegian Fisherman’s Association, for example, believed the artificial reef would hamper fishing: “We want everything to be removed so that the fishermen have the sea back in the same condition as it was before the oil production started.”13 Three Norwegian environmental groups, Bellona, Greenpeace Norway, and Norges Miljøvernforbund, submitted written responses to the plan, all arguing that the Odin structure should be taken to land for steel recycling.14 Greenpeace and Norges Miljøvernforbund called the plan “dumping” and cited the international treaties that had been signed after Brent Spar as reasons not to “dump” Odin as a reef. These two environmental groups argued that reef creation was not a valid reuse of structural material. Rather, in the context of the Brent Spar protest, it was equated with disposal.


Fish school together under a shipwreck. Some scientific studies have proven the value of manmade structures reborn as reefs.

In March 1996, the Norwegian Parliamentary Energy and Environment Committee gave their final recommendation on the Odin matter. The committee report recognized that Esso’s proposal to turn the Odin structure into a trial artificial fish reef could result in “useful information and knowledge on a controversial question.” Yet, the committee decided that the objections to the plan were too substantial and therefore advocated the total removal of the structure. The committee even requested that the Parliament order the Ministry of Industry and Energy to reexamine the disposal options for the Nordøst-Frigg offshore oil platform, which had previously been approved for at-sea disposal.15 This was a radical shift in policy.

Acting on the recommendation of the committee, the Parliament rejected Esso’s reef plans, requiring instead total removal of Odin. According to the Ministry of Industry and Energy’s press release, although “the uncertainty was too great” to approve this plan, “disposal at sea could be a possible solution in the future.”16 In their official statement, even the Ministry talked about reef creation as “disposal at sea” instead of structure reuse.

International Environmental Politics and Local Decisions

The Ministry made it clear that the decision was tied to Greenpeace’s actions and the resulting international sentiment against ocean dumping:

The final disposition of platforms received great international attention after Greenpeace’s action against the dumping of the Brent Spar this summer. With our long coastline and important fisheries, we are very concerned with protecting the sea. Norway is in favor of binding international agreements. International environmental cooperation and international agreements, which we all can and will respect, must be built on facts and scientific bases.17

Such a statement placed the Odin decision within the larger environmental politics arena. The Greenpeace actions had both created public doubt about the viability of the Odin plan as well as instigated serious political pressure on the UK and Norway for their holdout positions on “dumping.” Although scientists and industry supported the use of Odin as an artificial reef test project, the political momentum of 1995 made it less possible for Parliament to approve such a plan.

The repercussions of the decision to not create an artificial reef from Odin continued to reverberate. In 1999, Phillips Petroleum commissioned the study of an “Ekoreef” concept out of multiple Ekofisk structures that would soon require removal. Scientists argued that an Ekoreef could serve as a fish habitat protection tool to increase fish populations.18 Yet in the final proposal to the Parliament, Phillips recommended that all structures, other than the large concrete Ekofisk tank, be removed to land. While acknowledging the value of artificial reefs according to their own scientific study, the Phillips’ report stressed the uncertainty of the value of artificial reefs in the North Sea.19 If Odin had in fact been converted to a pilot reef in 1996 as Esso had originally planned, such uncertainty would have been much reduced, since it would have provided scientific data about the effects, whether positive, negative, or neutral, of rigs-to-reefs. Because Norway’s Parliament scuttled the Odin project in the face of the Brent Spar incident, the data to support or reject reef conversion was simply unavailable. Therefore, Phillips did not want to propose Ekoreef as a pilot project in case it received negative press and, like Odin, was rejected by the Parliament.


Marc AuMarc/Flickr
The hollowed frame of the Willaurie, a 140-foot barge—now reef—sunk off the coast of Nassau in 1986.

In the European political arena, developments continued to limit the potential for a North Sea rigs-to-reefs program. In 1998, OSPAR instituted a ban on dumping and toppling of all steel platforms except very large ones in the North Sea. However, the creation of artificial reefs from steel platform legs was not technically dumping or disposal and was therefore not restricted by the ban. The OSPAR delegations from Germany and Sweden complained about this apparent loophole. After much wrangling, when the “Guidelines on Artificial Reefs in relation to Living Marine Resources” were adopted in 1999, the document essentially excluded reusing offshore structures as reefs.20 Norway refused to adopt the guidelines, stating that the reuse of offshore installations needed to be exempted.21 In spite of Norway’s refusal to sign the guidelines, the opinion of the international political community had been made clear: rigs-to-reefs in the North Sea was equal to illicit dumping of offshore structures.

Environmental discourses develop on an international stage at a particular moment in time and can create associations between issues that are not directly related. When Greenpeace, by occupying the Brent Spar, turned all eyes on the issue of dumping oil installations at sea, political opinion turned against any action that might be construed as dumping. Although reef creation was not the same thing as disposal, environmentalists and OSPAR representatives from several nations believed that oil companies would misuse artificial reefs to dump their waste while claiming their actions were environmentally sound. The Norwegian government, although not in agreement with these positions, decided that the rig conversion battle was one they did not want to fight. Scientific reports delivered to the Fisheries and Coastal Department in 2000-2001 concluded that fish congregate around oil platform legs, indicating that artificial reefs constructed out of them would be successful, yet Norway did not formulate a rigs-to-reefs program based on these conclusions.22 The legacy of these decisions lives on: as of 2013, no obsolete offshore oil installation structures have been converted into artificial reefs in the North Sea.

The latest scientific research has affirmed that rigs-to-reefs may have positive environmental benefits in the North Sea, particularly as the structures would serve as homes for threatened cold-water corals.23 This is a position ocean scientists working in the North Sea have advocated for 25 years,24 but the political climate has not favored the creation of a rigs-to-reefs program. A partial solution to reverse environmental degradation caused by trawling may lie with artificial reef creation. Therefore, policymakers need to acknowledge the international political pressure that led to their decision not to make rigs-to-reefs conversions in the 1990s. Because of the timing of events, two different issues—deep-sea disposal and artificial reef creation—were intertwined. It is time to untangle them for the benefit of the North Sea environment.