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Interest Growing to Turn Rigs Into Reefs

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC,
September 17, 2003 (ENS) - Federal lawmakers keen to unlock more of the nation's offshore oil and gas resources have a new argument in their arsenal - that the platforms used to drill these resources are actually good for the environment. A House panel today heard from several witnesses supporting this claim, but critics believe the evidence is far from convincing.

There are some 4,000 oil and gas drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana Representative David Vitter told the House Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, and these are home to "some of the most prolific ecosystems on our planet."

"These are thriving ecosystems that build and develop around - and solely because of - off shore platforms," said Vitter, a Republican.

Under current federal law, these massive structures must be removed when the wells below go out of production. This requirement, Vitter says, makes little economic or environmental sense.

The Louisiana Congressman has introduced a bill - the "Rigs to Reefs Act" - that would change the law to enable oil and gas companies to leave the platforms in tact for use as artificial reefs, scientific research platforms or for marine aquaculture. This was the first hearing for the bill, which includes tax credit incentives for leaving platforms in place. oilrig

The Outer Continental Shelf currently accounts for some 30 percent of domestic oil production and about 27 percent of domestic natural gas production. (Photo courtesy U.S. Minerals Management Service)
Vitter says about eight percent of rigs are left in the water, under a Louisiana state law enacted in 1986 similar to what he has proposed for federal waters. Issues of liability prevent more decommissioned rigs from being left as artificial reefs, Vitter told the subcommittee, something his law would address.

"Under the bill, any liability that goes back to production activity when the platform was active goes back to the oil and gas company," Vitter said.

For claims that occur from actions after the platform has been transferred to another entity, Vitter said, "the new owner would be on the hook for liability."

There is little doubt such a law could help the oil and gas industry - it costs millions to remove decommissioned platforms from ocean waters.

Some 100 to 125 platforms are removed annually from the Gulf of Mexico, which is the nation's leading production area for offshore oil and gas.

Removing these rigs rips out thriving ecosystems - each platform supports a diverse array of marine life including coral and between "10,000 to 30,000 fish," says Steve Kolian of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

The mud floor of the Gulf has very little reef habitat and natural rock bottom, Kolian explained, so "oil and gas platforms represent the only reef habitat over much of the Louisiana continental shelf."

In the summer, Kolian said, much of the ocean floor in the region is covered with an anoxic layer of decomposing algae in the summer months - the result of excess nitrogen inflows into the Gulf.

The rigs are "incredibly important to fish in the area," Kolian explained, because they are the only hard structures that rise through this anoxic layer to provide reef habitat and food. fish

Local recreational charter boat captains, fishermen, and divers have all helped establish oil and gas platforms as some of the most popular offshore fishing and diving destinations in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo courtesy U.S. Minerals Management Service)
"Platforms seem to act more or less like natural reefs do," according to Dr. Milton Love, a marine biologist with the Marine Science Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Love examined California offshore rigs - the state has 27 in operation - in a study funded through federal grants and with money from the California Artificial Reef Program, which is supported by the oil industry.

"There is very little fishing around our platforms so they tend to act as de facto marine reserves," Love said.

The California marine biologist determined that removing these rigs once their use has expired would result in the death of "thousands, if not tens of thousands of fish."

Studies in Louisiana, Kolian told the subcommittee, show that the "platforms clearly produce fish rather than merely attract fish."

But others are less than convinced that the science is so clear - or that leaving decommissioned rigs in ocean waters is good public policy.

"One can throw batteries out on the ocean floor and stuff will grow on them," said Lisa Speer, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That does not mean it is a good idea."

Speer noted that a commission created in 2000 by the California Marine Council found little evidence to support converting decommissioned rigs to artificial reefs.

The commission concluded there is not enough scientific evidence to support the idea that platforms produce - rather than just attract - regional populations of marines species and recommended that impacts be considered in a regional context. offshore

Critics say the effects of leaving decommissioned rigs in the water are too murky for the concept to be widely embraced. (Photo courtesy U.S. Minerals Management Service)
"If the concern is preserving marine biodiversity, this is not the most effective way to go about it," Speer said.

Discarding junk into the ocean to create artificial reefs, however, does have some history. New York subway cars, for example, have been sunk off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina and Georgia to provide habitat for marine life.

Critics say oil rigs are quite a different proposition than decommissioned subway cars. Some worry the concept is a ruse supported by some commercial and recreational fishers, but Speer honed in on a much different issue.

"There is clear evidence of elevated levels of mercury surrounding rigs in the Gulf, there is no dispute about that," Speer said. " One issue is the extent to which that mercury is accumulating through the food chain and affecting organisms."

"The idea of leaving junked drilling rigs on the ocean floor is one that deserves some attention and scrutiny," Speer added.

Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind noted that some studies show that the federally licensed dumping of drilling muds has caused mercury contamination around some rigs that is "as high levels found at some Superfund sites."

Vitter says mercury contamination is an issue, but urged his colleagues to look at the positive benefits of allowing decommissioned rigs to remain in the water.

"Everyone who fishes Louisiana knows that the best fishing is under oil and gas platforms," said Vitter, who added that his bill would also direct the Interior Secretary to study whether the effect of the rigs on marine life.

"This study will quantify the extent to which platforms are beneficial to the offshore underwater environment and the extent to which more platform removals would be harmful to fish stocks and coral," he said. " I am confident this study would complement other existing research and provide more evidence that these platforms are beneficial to the marine environment. "

No timetable for action on Vitter's bill has been announced by the House Resources Committee.



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