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Man-Made Reefs or Oily Eyesores?

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.

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.”

 

But it isn’t just this protection that may be turning the rigs into artificial reefs, she says. They may also create a self-contained ecosystem where young rockfish can grow in the upper waters and descend to the depths as they mature.

Chris Lowe, a specialist in fish movement patterns and a professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach, agrees with his student Anthony. “We wanted to see whether or not the platforms were just a vacation spot for fish,” says Lowe. “What we found was that some individuals stayed at the platforms for two years.”

Lowe noticed that some rockfish did leave, and initially wondered if those animals were shunning the artificial reefs. Instead, he found, they tended to move to other platforms in even deeper waters — a descending behavior thought normal among rockfish as they grow older.

ALTHOUGH ALL SIDES IN THE DEBATE agree that marine life exists abundantly at many oil platforms, the question is whether the submerged steel beams provide actual habitat — in other words, a structured, sustainable and preferred place for animals to live. Even though a number of scientists believe the data show oil platforms to be important for the survival of at least a few finned species, some groups are unconvinced.

“It’s still premature to say that oil platforms provide habitats,” says Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center and a leading advocate for removing them. “There’s still no evidence that there’s been an increase in productivity or carrying capacity of a species” thanks to the structures.

FOR ENVIRONMENTALISTS, the loss of marine life is a short-term problem compared to the potential pollution due to corrosion and leaching of toxins from the structures, as well as from drilling muds on the ocean floor around the rigs. Krop and others liken a platform to a power line or garbage dump: Just because animals go there doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Even after the removal of four Chevron oil platforms from Santa Barbara Channel in 1996, levels of toxic heavy metals, petroleum and PCBs were high in debris mounds left behind at one site.

At the remaining 27 platforms, “We don’t necessarily know about the pollution coming from them,” says Zeke Grader of the fishermen’s association. “At the very least, we need to have water-quality studies performed.”

To comply with coastal safety rules, platforms left behind must be toppled or have their top 85 feet removed, which leaves only the legs and footings behind. But that could hurt some species that rely on the shade canopy from the platform. As Grader notes, Milton Love’s studies showing that the platforms benefit marine life assume that the shade canopies will be left intact — a very unlikely scenario.

“What [removing the canopy] means is that you’re changing the habitat,” says Grader. “If you’re going to leave the structures, you have to maintain the shade canopies, which means you have to leave the top floor.”

But several marine biologists insist the rigs offer an environment for marine life, canopy or not. Anthony believes the definition of what a “habitat” is must be decided on the basis of careful scientific inquiry, and says, “There is plenty of scientific, unbiased evidence showing that platforms provide habitat.”

Scientist Chris Lowe thinks that the advocates of removal need to stick with the data, and be careful about being too lax in defining “habitats.” Since a University of California Marine Council study was released in 2000, concluding that the rigs don’t help fish stocks, he notes that little scientific evidence has been produced suggesting otherwise — until his own and Milton Love’s research came out.

“I seldom see organizations that are complaining or suing putting up money to fund scientific experiments to back up their claims,” says Lowe. “You can’t just point fingers.” The cost of such studies pales in comparison to the cost of removing California’s drilling platforms — a price estimated at more than $1 billion.

MONEY WILL DRIVE THE DECISION, no matter which route is taken. “If it weren’t for economics” — the high profits flowing to the oil industry thanks to big increases in oil prices — “I really believe we wouldn’t be talking about this issue,” says Dede Alpert, former state Assemblywoman and state Senator from San Diego.

Six years ago, Alpert introduced Senate Bill 1, which proposed that the state assume responsibility for shuttered offshore oil structures. The oil facilities could then be converted permanently to artificial reefs similar to those in Gulf of Mexico states. According to Alpert, oil companies would have saved money because it’s much more expensive to remove an entire structure than to just remove the top. At the same time, her bill would have forced oil companies to hand some of those savings to the state to preserve ocean life and habitats.

 

HOWEVER, THEN-GOVERNOR GRAY DAVIS vetoed the bill, saying there was “no conclusive evidence that converted platforms enhance marine species or produce net benefits to the environment.”

Meanwhile, removal costs have jumped — to between $10 million and $130 million per rig, according to a federal estimate in 2004. Robert Byrd of Twachtman, Snyder and Byrd — a prominent Texas consulting firm for platform decommissioning — says those estimates are “all light by about 25 percent.”

At the very least, argues Grader, oil companies should not get “a free pass.” If the structures remain to act as reefs, the money saved — by oil companies that avoid the costs of total removal — should not be split between California and the oil companies, but instead “should be put into an ocean fund.”

Naturally, oil companies disagree. “There are savings to oil companies, there is no doubt about that,” says Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Association. “It’s just not practical to allocate 100 percent of [the savings] to marine programs. There has to be benefits to both the environment and [oil] companies.”

Further complicating the money issue, groups like the Environmental Defense Center oppose shifting financial responsibility to the state, especially considering that many of the structures sit in federal, not state, waters. “Why should the state have to be liable for these structures?” asks Linda Krop. “Why doesn’t the oil industry have to maintain liability?”

If the state assumes responsibility, she says, taxpayers will be forced to bear the cost of damages caused to seafaring vessels and fishermen if the rusting hulks cause mishaps.

Some Gulf states have already made a choice. A federal program, known as Rigs to Reefs, supports the reuse of offshore oil and gas facilities as artificial reefs. Adopted in Texas and Louisiana, Rigs to Reefs uses several methods — leaving them intact, toppling them or moving them.

Although the artificial-reefs idea was defeated under Gray Davis, scientific evidence gathered since his veto has stimulated further talks, such as those held in March at the Rigs to Reefs Conference in Huntington Beach. “It’s interesting to see perspectives change as we increase what we know about these platforms,” says Lowe of CSULB. “California could come out as a leader by using creative solutions to solve this problem.”

Still, the dilemma runs as deep as the offshore wells. Lowe notes that what happens to the structures, whether they stay or go, may very well “depend on how many citizens speak out.”


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