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Man-Made Reefs or Oily Eyesores? 

In a raging debate, some say Mother Nature has warmed to California’s offshore oil rigs

Wednesday, Jun 20 2007
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A MASSIVE FRAMEWORK OF TWISTED metal pipes, rusty support beams and storage bins, the hulking oil platform “Grace” stands just above the ocean 10 miles off Ventura, 28 years after its stark and square industrial blob was plopped — to loud protests — into the picturesque scenery of the California coast.

Although the platform’s top floor contains a small compound where Venoco Inc. employees can temporarily live above the shifting Pacific waters, for years the real activity has been unfolding below the water line. There, an explosion of movement and life — a veritable zoo — is now intricately tied to the platform’s massive, 318-foot-deep, steel legs.

Shelled invertebrates, sea stars and sponges tightly clasp support beams, creating a forest of color descending into dark water. Fish with names describing their aesthetic qualities dart through the watery forest: painted greenlings, pink sea perch and squarespot rockfish. Large predatory fish lurk under the shade canopy provided by the top of the platform, quietly waiting for smaller fish to swim too close.

click to enlarge Contented fish join the life flourishing under oil platform Grace. (Photo by Kim Anthony)
  • Contented fish join the life flourishing under oil platform Grace. (Photo by Kim Anthony)

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The species change quickly with depth. Reaching the ocean floor, scientists using small research submarines say that a visible pile of debris has formed — a shell mound made up of remains of invertebrates dislodged from their homes higher up on the sunken metal. Around the mound, bottom-dwelling fish scavenge for leftovers that fall from overhead.

Grace, installed in 1979, is one of 27 oil platforms and drilling rigs on the Southern California coastline that form a critical but controversial component of the petroleum industry, with seven companies holding claim to offshore deposits. According to the federal Minerals Management Service, these structures produced more than 1 billion barrels of oil and 1.3 billion cubic meters of gas over the last half century.

But many platforms are expected to begin to undergo a “decommissioning” process in the next several years, and while the decision on when and how to pull the plug on oil production is in itself fairly complex, what to do with the platforms is now the focus of a growing debate: Should the offshore rigs and platforms be left behind to act as artificial reefs, or be removed by oil companies, as they promised — and as required by law?

Proponents of removal say the huge oily hulks are sources of pollution, spur concerns over setting bad precedents, and pose safety hazards to fishermen and ships. But supporters of leaving the platforms intact claim they act as artificial reefs that could provide refuge for marine life over the next 300 years.

THE DEBATE LOOMS as one of the biggest environmental battles facing California. Among environmentalists, scientists, fishermen, politicians and oil-industry representatives, and even within some groups, there’s little consensus over what should be done. Scientists are often pitted against scientists and preservationists against preservationists.

“There was a commitment on the part of the oil companies that they would remove them and not permanently change the environment,” says Zeke Grader, executive director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents commercial fishermen from the West Coast.

The fishermen’s association, along with environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Center, has fought legislation designed to protect and maintain the rigs as man-made reefs. They argue that if the rigs became state property, California taxpayers would be responsible for damages if something goes wrong with them.

But others, notably marine scientists such as Milton Love from the University of California at Santa Barbara, point to the destruction that removal could cause to ever-growing marine communities under and around the platforms.

“My view is that killing hundreds of millions of animals is an immoral thing to do,” says Love, who notes that removing the rigs would involve blasting them with explosives. Love has dedicated much of the last two decades to studying fish at offshore oil facilities to understand the role these mostly submerged structures play in marine habitats. His research showed that the facilities are probably important to some fish species, including economically valuable rockfish such as bocaccio and cowcod, typically grouped under the name “Pacific red snapper” in stores.

Kim Anthony, a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach, who is studying whether rockfish prefer natural reefs to oil platforms, found in preliminary research that 24 percent of the fish caught at offshore oil structures and brought by CSULB marine scientists to natural reefs end up swimming back to their oil platforms.

Several species of rockfish have been overfished, she notes, and if oil rigs provide a sheltering space for them as they mature, and help protect them in adulthood, then drilling platforms might be one means of bringing depleted rockfish populations up to a more stable level.

Aside from the platforms’ massive tops — several of which are visible to people on land — and marine-life-encrusted legs, the rigs are largely inaccessible to fishermen. That may contribute to the large numbers of fish near some of them. “They are difficult to fish around,” says Anthony. “In most cases, you have to be 300 feet away [from a platform], but even if you do get closer, your gear tends to get snagged anyway.”

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