Off the coast of Southern California, there's an underwater city. A thicket of almost 30 enormous steel oil rigs, each as large as a skyscraper, bolted to the floor of the ocean. Most of them are elderly, aging giants—and soon, the state will need to make a decision about whether to rip them up or let them stand. Either option comes with huge risks.

As early as the 18th century, European explorers in the region recorded oil slicks in the Pacific. Offshore drilling began off the coast of California in 1896, and by the turn of the 20th century almost 200 wells had been drilled into the Earth. These wooden piers eventually became oil rigs, and today, there are 27 hulking steel platforms off the coast of Santa Barbara. But over the next few years, every last one of these rigs will go dry or be decommissioned. Until 2010, state law required that they be removed entirely—but it now allows the option to convert the rigs into artificial reefs instead.

So California will be stuck with a stand of empty steel skeletons, some as large as the Empire State Building, and no clear consensus about what to do them.

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The City of Underwater Skyscrapers

Removing a rig sounds simple enough. But it's actually as complicated and expensive—and politically fraught—as disassembling a skyscraper. A skyscraper in the middle of the ocean sitting on top of a potential environmental catastrophe, even. The 100-foot-tall structure you see above the water? That's a fraction of what's beneath.

AP Photo/Grant Hindsley.

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As many scientists have pointed out, these decades-old structures play host to incredible amounts of sea life. In the Gulf, part of an increasingly popular solution called "rigs to reefs," decommissioned oil rigs are sliced off at the water line to preserve the ecosystems—essentially creating artificial reefs below the surface. Some advocates say California should consider a similar plan: Rather than removing the rigs entirely, they argue, the tops should be lopped off and the bottoms left to host the sea life that already makes its home there.

It's hard to imagine that life could flourish on these spindly, enormous skeletons devoted to plumbing every last drop of petroleum out of the Pacific. But after talking with two oceanographers, Amber Jackson and Emily Callahan, the founders of a project called Rig to Reef Exploration, I got a glimpse of what's actually down there. Here's how Callahan described the experience to Gizmodo:

I've been diving for 15 years, and I've never seen anything like this. You essentially roll over off the side, and you're looking like something the size of the Empire State Building, but there's so much life on it: Anemones, and mussels, and sea lions all around you, and scallops, it looks like it's breathing, and it's vibrant. You don't see a shred of metal underneath it.

Images: Rig to Reef Exploration.

Callahan, who worked on the Deepwater Horizon cleanup in 2011, and Jackson, who worked at Google on a project to launch Oceans on Street View, are savvy young scientists. Their Instagram is overflowing with incredible images of the rigs, and they even helped GoPro test a new 360-degree camera on their early dives.

Images: Rig to Reef Exploration.

The duo got involved in the issue when they chose to focus on it for a thesis topic in a master's program at Scripps. Their goal was to simply research the concept: "We were looking for an unbiased study," Callahan told Gizmodo. But the project ended with a clear conclusion: The communities that have sprung up around the rigs should be allowed to survive.

That was the beginning of Rig to Reef Exploration, which seeks to further study the ecosystems that thrive on these decades-old steel structures—and to advocate for their existence in the future.

A Slippery Debate

It's no surprise this debate that has introduced a schism to the science community. There are strong arguments against it: These rigs were artificially introduced to the ocean. There's the potential for leaks and toxic runoff; one study says that the "shell mounds" left behind on the beams contain toxic levels of contaminants. Leaving these steel skeletons behind will impede fishers who trawl the ocean floor for their catch.

Images: Rig to Reef Exploration.

There are also strong arguments for it: Studies show that these rigs are host to vibrant, flourishing communities of sea life. Ripped up rigs are often towed to China, where the scrap steel is sold off—incurring incredible carbon costs. Some scientists say leaving the rigs in place is less damaging, environmentally, than destroying them. "The well is capped the same way as it would be capped in a regular decommissioning," Jackson argues. "The oil company retains liability for that well, and any leak or damage that comes from the well."

AP Photo/Adam Lau.

And complicating the whole issue are the oil companies, which will save billions if they're able to leave their old rigs in place. Rig decommissioning is now a huge business, as thousands of skyscraper-sized rigs built off our coasts get too old or too costly to maintain. The interests of these megacorporations contaminate the scientific debate about the biological benefit of the rigs—they're like specters, watching over the proceedings, with a clear interest in which side succeeds.

"They just want to leave them (the platforms) where they are," said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, in an interview with Jackson and Callahan. "Which doesn't make any sense, because the state is not selecting appropriate locations based on need." All of which is compounded by the fact that this is a relatively new debate—and a relatively new area of scientific study. We simply need more information.

An Aging America

Unfortunately, we don't really have the luxury of more time. California's rigs will all be due for decommissioning within the next decade or two, and at that point, a decision will need to be made. Jackson and Callahan are hoping to secure more funding for Rig to Reef so they can expand their research to other parts of the world, collect more evidence, and help countries make decisions about the fates of their aging rigs.

At the heart of the debate is a paradigm that we're going to see, more and more, as our country's infrastructure ages. America is getting older. The century-long volley of growth—spurred along by the introduction of the automobile, of oil, of development—is slowing. Neighborhoods that once flourished are abandoned, highways fall into disrepair, bridges are crumbling. The question is whether we attempt to return these pieces of civilization back into the untouched nature that once existed, or simply help the adaptive ecosystems that have sprung up in their midst to flourish.

Oil rigs are just the latest piece of aging infrastructure to force this question. What California decides to do with the small city of oil rigs standing abandoned off its coastline could affect how we think of environmental rehabilitation for decades to come.

Lead image: David McNew/Newsmakers.