Marine Life Complicates Removal of Old Oil Rigs

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Posted by on April 23, 2005 at 09:27:44:

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A10

CHARLOTTE HARBOR, Fla. -- A rusting oil rig perched on the muddy
bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, notorious for its vast "dead zone" off
the Mississippi Delta, might seem an unlikely setting for a thriving

But that is exactly what Paul Sammarco has found on more than a dozen
of the 4,000-plus drilling platforms that dot the Gulf. Sammarco, a
marine biologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has
discovered that the rigs have spawned lush marine habitats that are
home to a profusion of rare corals and 10,000 to 30,000 fish each.

The results of his research, which he will publish later this spring
in the journal Marine Biology, have thrown a surprising new wrinkle
into an ongoing debate on how best to dispose of the thousands of old
rigs due to be abandoned as oil and gas production winds down. His work
has also raised questions about the "Rigs to Reefs" program under which
states bordering the Gulf have been turning old rigs into artificial
reefs designed to sustain fish, sponges and other marine life.

Most Gulf oil fields in depths of less than 600 feet will become
unproductive in the next 10 to 15 years, industry sources say. The
platforms will be abandoned at the rate of 150 to 200 a year, and
federal law requires that they be removed within a year after the end
of exploration and production.

"There's a problem with that in the Gulf of Mexico," Sammarco said.
"Most of the bottom is mud, so oil rigs provide the only hard bottom on
which marine animals can settle and hunt for food. Once a rig is moved
in any way, an entire ecosystem is gone."

The fate of the oil rigs has also attracted the attention of fishermen
such as Dan Leonard, who raises clams at his Bull Bay Clam Farm, near
here. He thinks the platforms could be the foundation for an offshore
ocean farming business.

Leonard described his vision recently as he pushed the throttle of his
boat "Scow" to full power, with the vessel skimming the waters toward a
four-acre area of sea bottom he had seeded six months ago with tiny

A biting wind blew across the Gulf of Mexico, throwing up waves
carrying red tide, a bloom of toxic algae. He has leased the sea-bottom
tract from the state of Florida for years, but he has not been able to
harvest clams this spring because of the red tide.

He pointed to the dead and dying mangrove trees lying like fallen
soldiers along the shore. Hard hit by several hurricanes, the ailing
mangroves, like the red tide, are ominous signs, Leonard believes.

"If it's not hurricane damage doing us in, it's red tides, or it's
out-of-control development all along the coast. We need to move
offshore and try this away from where our farms can be so easily
destroyed," he said.

"Sitting in the Gulf are hundreds of oil rigs no longer being used, so
why not take advantage of them?"

Leonard is not alone in thinking that the Gulf's drilling platforms
have more to offer.

For differing reasons, aquaculture farmers, biotechnology companies,
fishermen, scientists and oil executives agree that a new life could
await the rigs once they are no longer needed for drilling.

But in a bit of environmental irony, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands
Act, which requires the removal of obsolete oil rigs, stands in the way
of these proposed uses and threatens the surprising marine habitats.

Under the Rigs to Reefs program, the platforms are either towed
elsewhere and sunk, tipped on their sides or cut down well below the
water's surface so they would no longer be hazards to navigation.

The problem, Sammarco said, is that "an oil rig's biggest contribution
to marine life, whether to the species that naturally settle on it or
to future aquaculture or biotechnology uses, is in the shallow waters
where sunlight penetrates."

For that, he said, the structure needs to remain at or near the Gulf's

"The federal law and resulting state management plans were devised
before anyone knew about the profusion of marine life on oil rigs,"
said Steve Kolian, a marine scientist at the Louisiana Department of
Natural Resources.

Kolian is a member of the Louisiana Platforms for Mariculture Task
Force, which is calling for a revision of the law to make the platform
removal requirements more flexible.

Getting rid of the platforms currently costs the oil and gas companies
$300 million to $400 million each year, according to industry reports,
and under the current law, they will eventually face a bill of more
than $10 billion to remove all obsolete oil structures.

Chuck Bedell, director of environmental affairs for Murphy Oil Corp.,
a Louisiana company with ongoing production in the Gulf of Mexico, said
that, because of the costs, the industry supports the effort to keep
rigs in place, "as long as we can find a way to transfer ownership and
liability for 'retired' platforms."

In the previous Congress, then-Rep. David Vitter (R-La.), now a
senator, introduced a bill to authorize the use of obsolete oil
platforms for culturing marine species, scientific research and as
artificial reefs.

"Nations like Japan are spending billions of dollars to create
offshore structures for mariculture," Vitter said. "Our waters already
have them in place, but our policy is to remove them, destroying
thriving marine environments." The House bill died, but Vitter said he
plans to try again in the Senate.

Vitter may have to contend with the recent efforts of Sen. Lisa
Murkowski (R-Alaska). Murkowski introduced a bill in the previous
Congress to block permits for fish farms more than three miles offshore
until further scientific studies can be conducted. She cited fears that
closely packed fish in pens could spread disease, as well as concerns
over the possible genetic impact of escaped farmed fish interbreeding
with their wild counterparts.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, in a report issued last year,
backed open-ocean aquaculture under specific conditions.

In response, the White House has proposed a National Offshore
Aquaculture Act giving the Department of Commerce authority to regulate
open-ocean aquaculture, clearing the way for such ventures.

Al Walker, owner of Xtreme Fishing Charters in Venice, La., hopes that
"all these efforts don't somehow get tangled up."

Taking out an oil rig in the Gulf, he said, "is like cutting down a
forest of thousand-year-old trees. While they're debating in
Washington, marine life on the Gulf's oil rigs -- and the people and
businesses that might benefit from it -- are left high and dry."

Said Sammarco: "We've created these ecosystems, now it's up to us to
keep them alive. Removing old oil rigs is 'pulling the plug' on many of
the Gulf of Mexico's rare and important marine species."

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