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Is Rigs-to-Reefs Best Plan for Oil Rigs?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They seem unsinkable, these steel behemoths that could stand forever as marvels of 20th-century engineering. But offshore oil platforms have a life span. After the oil is gone, the question becomes what to do with the man-made islands.

That issue is a hot topic as oil companies tussle with environmentalists and state lawmakers over the future of 40 undeveloped oil leases off California’s Central Coast, some of the last undersea plots up for grabs.

Oil companies say they should be allowed to tap the new ocean bottom parcels, and they want to erect four offshore platforms in unmarred waters to do it. With as many as eight platforms slated to be scrapped in the next few years, oil executives argue, California would end up with fewer offshore derricks spotting the seascape.

Such arguments have not swayed environmentalists and commercial fishermen. They remain doubtful that oil companies will make good on a longtime promise to return the sea bottom to its original condition. Such groups are particularly skeptical about a proposal--dubbed “rigs to reefs"--to turn the giant, steel-jacketed platforms into artificial sanctuaries for fish and other sea creatures after the oil runs dry.

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The old wells would be capped with concrete plugs, according to the most popular proposal, and the top portion of the rig, visible from land, would be removed. The rest of the structure, which resembles an Erector set, would be left submerged to support the plethora of sea life that scientists have found on platforms.

But “rigs to reefs” is viewed skeptically by many.

“Oil companies will do everything they can to save money,” said Mike McCorkle, president of the Southern California Trawlers Assn. “When they put these platforms in, they promised to remove them completely. Now, they are hoping to sell everybody on a bunch of junk science for not taking them out.”

McCorkle said that even with the reefs marked on nautical maps, they would pose a threat to commercial fishermen. He said the structures would rip up nets and snag hooks, hang up trawlers that drop their gear to the bottom for dragging the depths, and threaten boats during bad storms.

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Many divers and sportfishermen, however, tend to favor the man-made reef concept because the rigs could serve as easily identifiable places to find fish.

A panel of marine biologists from around the state is being formed to explore the rigs-to-reefs concept. Milton Love, a biologist with the UC Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute and member of the panel, has studied marine life around oil platforms for the past five years.

“They are in fact artificial reefs right now,” Love said, “As far as the fish is concerned, it’s not waiting for the state of California to say it’s a reef to live there. They are full of life.”

He said each reef supports a unique ecosystem, but the general pattern is mussels and small rockfish near the surface, with anemone, large rockfish and crabs at the deepest depths. Love said biologists still have not been able to prove whether an oil platform produces more fish or just concentrates them.

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In the Gulf of Mexico, oil rigs have been knocked over to serve as reefs, but Love is uncertain whether that would serve the same preservation purpose. “If you just tip them over, a decent party boat could clean the place out in a few days by fishing over the top,” he said.

The oil industry favors the rigs-to-reefs concept.

“Of course, the industry will save some money,” said Del Clement, a Chevron manager in charge of taking platforms out of service. “But the structures are already reefs. We honestly believe it is the best thing for the environment, the coastal community. It is a win-win situation.”

Only seven oil platforms have been removed from the California coast, and they were removed from relatively shallow water, about 150 feet deep. There are now 10 in state water, which extends three miles out, and 23 in federal water farther out.

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One rig slated for decommissioning is the Belmont Platform off Seal Beach, just south of the entrance to Long Beach Harbor. Last week, divers and sportfishermen appeared before the State Lands Commission to complain about plans to remove the rig, saying the area around the platform is a prime spot for fishing and viewing marine life.

The California Department of Fish and Game, however, has determined that the Belmont Platform has no real value as an artificial reef. The Coast Guard is concerned that it would be a shipping hazard if the top were removed and the bottom left underwater as a reef.

Chevron spent $40 million to remove four platforms off the Santa Barbara coast in 1996. But years of blasting off mussels left shell mounds up to 40 feet high and 200 feet across, making it impossible for fishermen to trawl the area for shrimp and sole. Clement said the company is talking with the affected fishermen over possible navigational equipment to enable them to fish around the mounds.

Some federal oil platforms are in water 1,200 feet deep. The deepest spot in the world from which a rig has been successfully removed was just 400 feet, according to John Smith, environmental coordinator with the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees federal offshore oil leases. But he is confident that the technology exists to work at deeper depths.

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“We do know that certain platforms, because of their life and their age, will need to be decommissioned within the next several years,” Smith said. “But I feel comfortable we will be able to conduct it in an environmentally safe and sound manner.”

Although there is an increasing pattern of large oil companies selling their aging platforms to smaller operations, Smith said his agency will still be able to go after the original owners for complete removal.


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