The future of offshore rigs?

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Posted by on June 23, 2005 at 18:05:53:

Debate rages on the structures, which double as fish sanctuaries

LONG BEACH - The ugly, rust-streaked steel structure rises out of the sea like a shipwreck. Platform Gail -- 10 miles off the Southern California coast -- was built to pump oil from beneath the seabed, not as a fish refuge.

Don't tell Tom Raftican that. When Raftican slides beneath the Pacific swell in his scuba gear, he sees a viable ecosystem where the rig's underwater supports are. Marine animals have covered the supports so completely, it's difficult to tell it's not a natural reef, even from up close.

Mussels, sea urchins, barnacles, tubeworms and other invertebrates cling to the steel legs of the oil rig as garibaldi and rockfish hover nearby. According to UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Milton Love, Platform Gail has a higher density of cowcod and bocaccio rockfish than anywhere else in Southern California. The near extinction of these critically depleted species has prompted recent restrictions on fishing for rockfish.

Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, a sportfishing advocacy group, likes what he sees at Platform Gail and doesn't want to see it disturbed anytime soon.

Raftican's wish might be only that, a wish. As offshore oil rigs in Southern California reach the end of their useful lives, there is an intense debate raging over whether to remove the rigs entirely, as is required under current law, or to dismantle the upper structure and leave the underwater supports as fish sanctuaries.

That idea was approved by California's legislature in 2001 in a "Rigs-to-Reefs" bill but was vetoed by governor Gray Davis after strong lobbying from environmental groups. In the Gulf Coast, offshore oil rigs have been converted to artificial reefs, and the program has been considered a success by fish and game officials in Florida and Texas. Oil companies would clearly benefit by saving the cost of completely removing the rigs and have offered to give one-half of the savings to marine research and conservation. That could amount to a $500 million donation, according to one study.

Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, which helped defeat the California legislation, says that leaving the rigs off California's coast would create pollution and navigational hazards. She also claims there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that the rigs would help restore ocean fisheries. Krop also said that the Gulf Coast differs in that most of the rigs in that area are moved to appropriate places and are located in shallower water than in California, where rigs were erected in the best places for oil, not fish. Krop cites a 2000 report by a blue-ribbon panel of oceanic researchers that recommended against the Rigs-to-Reefs program until more research can be done.

Mark Carr, a professor at UC Santa Cruz -- and member of the panel that conducted the study -- said new findings suggest that oil rigs are good habitats for some species of rockfish.

"It looks like that for those species that were studied, that rigs-to-reefs is a reasonable direction to go in," Carr said. "What's inspiring is that we said, 'Here's what we know and what we need to know,' and now we're starting to get that information."

Carr said artificial reefs would be most beneficial in southern areas of the Southern California Bight, which lack the natural reefs of the Channel Islands.

California Artificial Reef Enhancement is asking the federal government to support California's Rigs-to-Reefs program. The organization, supported by Chevron, Texaco and United Anglers, has helped fund research on the topic.

Surveys of several oil rigs from central California to Long Beach in 1995-2001 found that rigs that were converted to reefs provided habitat for rockfish that was equal to or better than natural reefs and acted as nursery grounds for some fish that would otherwise not survive, including bocaccio.

Valerie Chambers, an official with NOAA Fisheries, said her agency would like to evaluate the effects of oil platforms ondepleted rockfish populations as well as the impacts of removing oil rigs.

"Removing the platforms will stir up toxic sediment and eliminate a lot of fish and invertebrates," said Chambers. "But we shouldn't just allow people to leave all their junk on the sea bottom."

Time is running out on many rigs' offshore oil leases, so a decision on whether to leave the structures as fish habitats or remove them completely will be coming in the next few years.

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