Crisis in the Gulf: Part II

Part II of II
By: Steve McNemar
Photo credit: Michael Strohmeyer
Read Crisis in the Gulf: Part I here.

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The following article was written almost ten years ago. It was published in numerous venues and read into the Congressional Record. However after all that time, while a lot of the names of participants is this struggle have changed, little else has been done to save these ecosystems from destruction.

So why not just topple the rigs? That was the question I posed to Captain Al Walker when he first made me aware of this crises. Walker, an accomplished diver and owner of Gulf Productions, who has been documenting these diverse ecosystems for both the oil and gas industry and for scientist, explained to me that the first 60’ below the surface is critical.

Steve Kolian also said, “Because the structures stand up through the entire water column, the upper habitat of a platform provides substrate for shallow water species. Caribbean fish normally found in the Yucatan and Florida keys, thrive on the transoms and pilings of platforms. The first 60’ opens up the food chain with plankton and small fish species, which then provide food for the larger predators below. Snapper and other fish relate to vertical structure before spawning and lay their eggs within or on the structure. Also many invertebrates’ crabs, corals and sponges would not survive in deeper water. We would lose all of these organisms if the platforms were toppled.”

Dr. Paul Sammarco concurred “Toppling would be only second best as the majority of the ecosystem would not survive. There would be a remaining ecosystem but it would be much smaller, slower growing and not as viable. Remember the beauty of the platforms is that they increase larvae habitat and production of juveniles.”

I even thought that well perhaps something remained after removal that may still provide structure for bottom dwellers. However, when I spoke with Barney Congden who heads up public affairs for Minerals Management Service, he told me that the platforms are removed fifteen feet BELOW the sediment. “We want it to look like a golf course down there.”

Even reports found on the Minerals Management Service web site make the case whether intended or not that standing platforms produce more viable ecosystems than do platforms converted to reefs. In OCS Report MMS 2000-073 the report states that “researchers report fish densities 20 to 50 times higher around active platforms, which also serve as de facto reefs, than in nearby open water.” In another report OCS Study MMS 2003-009 the report states “Our results are in support of previous findings that when a platform is converted into an artificial reef by toppling in place or partial removal, it loses a significant portion of the fish community.” It goes on to state “we tended to find higher fish densities in habitats with more vertical structure.”

Kind of sounds like the scientist I spoke with are right on.

Dr. Sammarco who is also a coral specialist points out that another extremely important aspect of these ecosystems is that corals have colonized platforms in the northern Gulf of Mexico whereas the northern Gulf with few exceptions was void of coral before the establishment of these platforms. While most of the coral reefs around the world are dying out we are establishing healthy populations. In fact it is possible that our coral may be helping to stabilize our Gulf coral populations, as well as those elsewhere outside the immediate Gulf region.. These corals and sponges also are being studied for possible uses as pharmaceuticals and antibiotics. It is very possible that a cure for certain cancers may be growing on one of these platforms that face destruction.

Sammarco says “ Leaving these rigs in place would be a win all the way around – win for government, win for oil companies, win for fishermen, win for scientists and all associated industries plus create new industries.”

Create new industries? What does he mean by that? As I mentioned earlier the Japanese are spending billions in fact 10 billion dollars to build platforms that pale in comparison to ones in the Gulf in order to raise fish. Yes raise fish offshore. According to Kolian one platform could manage 9 net pens, which could produce 9 million pounds of fish annually. That’s the equivalent of the total annual commercial and recreation harvest of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico!

As the planet evolves and mariculture techniques are refined, raising fish in the Gulf of Mexico will become a necessity to feed the worlds hungry. It would then be ludicrous to be forced to spend billions rebuilding platforms that already exist today.

It is extremely feasible that new mariculture and aquaculture industries can be put in place replacing thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry.

These industries can also take some of the stress off of over fished species and allow the culture and harvest of corals, which are prohibited from being taken in the wild.

The mariculture opportunities are fascinating but space does not permit my expanding on it at this time.

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How Do We Save The Rigs?

To get a better understanding of how the issue began I spoke with Chuck Bedell, an attorney who is the environmental and government affairs manager for Murphy Exploration & Production-USA. Mr. Bedell was Chief Minority Counsel for the Ad Hoc Select Committee on the Outer Continental Shelf when congress re-wrote the Outer-Continental Shelf Lands Act in the mid 1970’s.The idea that we should be saving platforms was never discussed back then and the law requiring removal of the platforms was left in place.

Bedell, who has become a driving force in trying to have that rewritten, says “We had no idea at the time that these ecosystems were being created. No one thought about this positive environmental impact. Our number one objective today is to preserve what we have created. We need to do that by educating government and the people as to what is being destroyed so we can stop the slaughter. If the government was forcing us to destroy 200 natural reefs a year there would be an international out cry.”

    It is my understanding that the hierarchy works something like this:

  1. The United States Congress has ultimate oversight together with the authority and power to change the existing laws regarding the platforms.
  2. MMS – Minerals Management Service-under the Department of the Interior – has direct oversight over oil and gas production facilities.
  3.  The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council oversee the Gulf of Mexico fishery and compliance with the Magnuson Act. Which is interesting since removing these platforms is in direct contrast to protecting “Essential Fish Habitat” as defined in the act!

First the OCS law has to be changed and Congressman David Vitter has filed a bill called the “Rigs to Reefs Act” in order to get that discussion going and the law changed. In fact the gentlemen I quote in this article as well as a few other scientist recently testified before a congressional committee on this topic.

I spoke with Congressman Vitter about this legislation and he was very excited to have submitted it. He feels that the hearing held September 17, 2003 was “very positive” and believes that passage would be a win/win situation for all concerned. He feels it will be a “win for the environment”, as it will stop the destruction of these important ecosystems while being a “win economically by creating new jobs and opportunities in aquaculture and science”.

He said the act would serve to create a federal Rigs to Reefs program that would remove the disincentives for keeping these platforms in place-saving them as long as strict environmental measures were taken-for utilization as artificial reefs, platforms for scientific research and as platforms to be utilized for aquaculture.

He also indicated that the real challenge to passage is in “convincing some members of congress and the environmental community that this truly is a win/win situation for all”-that in removing the platforms we are in fact truly hurting the environment and destroying a valuable ecosystem.

What would happen in a perfect scenario?

  1.  The OCS law would be changed.
  2.  The Rigs to Reefs program would be expanded in that all decommissioned rigs would either be donated to the state or to the Federal Government in a National Rigs to Reefs program.
  3. The oil companies already pay the state an amount equal to half of the cost savings for not having to remove the platform-a payment that can top a million dollars. That amount can be used for maintenance and for upkeep of navigational aides.
  4. Some of the platforms will be leased out for mariculture purposes.

Sounds almost too simple doesn’t it?

Are we close?  Not even barely and we have tough opposition.

According to Mr. Congdon there is a lot of disparity among user groups. Recreational fisherman, divers, scientists and related user groups would like to see them stay. However some commercial fisherman view platforms as obstacles; and environmental groups who fear steel and mercury would like to see them removed. “MMS will do whatever congress instructs us to do but as for now OCS regulations require removal of the platforms within one year after they cease production.”

Most of us know that there are radical environmental groups out there that will take on any cause just to keep their coffers full whether or not the ends justify the means.

You will hear concerns about mercury – in reality a non-issue. Studies have been done over many years and the EPA has long standing regulations in place controlling the amount of any heavy metal in drilling mud. Trefray, et al with the Florida Institute of Technology, issued a recent report. This report released October 15th, 2002 found that while there are higher levels of elemental mercury (Hg) near a few platforms –totals within acceptable levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency- there is no proof of higher concentrations of Methyl Mercury (MeHg) – the nasty culprit that we all fear – than found any where else in the gulf. In fact, it was actually lower around some of the platforms! While not widely known, offshore California, mussels and scallops have been raised on platforms and sold commercially for years, with the approval of the California Heath Department, which tests them for contaminants regularly.

You will hear about rust or platform degradation – again bogus. The scientist tell me that these platforms can survive 300 – 400 years below the water line and will eventually turn in to rock. That is, the steel will eventually corrode 100% but the attached organisms growing on the steel will continue to secrete calcium carbonate, or limestone, and the steel structure will eventually become a carbonate reef.

What can you do to help save these awesome resources?

rigsSpeak up. Make your voice heard. Tell your senators, congressmen, local representatives, MMS, NMFS, Gulf Council and State Wildlife and Fisheries how important you feel it is for these platforms to remain in place.

I have provided numbers and links for you below.

If you are outside of the Gulf region – make your voice heard also. The loss of these ecosystems affects the world – not just the Gulf coast.

I believe Steve Kolian sums it up best:

“About 500 acres of the most prolific and diverse habitat on the planet are being lost every year and no one is even blinking an eye.”

Steve McNemar has been fishing the waters of South Louisiana for almost 50 years. An award winning outdoor writer and radio broadcaster, he is a member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, a nationally published outdoor writer and photographer and Co-Host of the radio show Hunt. Fish. Talk. He is also the CEO of U.S. Impact, Inc located in Mandeville, La. He can be reached via email at steve@usimpactinc.com.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
www.towersoflife.com/ecorigs
www.preserverigs.com

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