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WILD NATURE

Oil companies, environmentalists oppose fed rules for removing sunken oil rigs

  • Scientists say the oil rigs, whether in operation or scuttled, help form artificial reefs that boost fish populations. (All photos courtesy Meridian Ocean Services)2012 Kenneth Nevor

  • 2012 Kenneth Nevor

  • 2012 Kenneth Nevor

  • 2012 Kenneth Nevor

  • 2012 Kenneth Nevor

Oil companies and environmental groups may spar over off-shore drilling, but there's one thing they can agree on: Leaving scuttled rigs on the ocean floor creates a rich environment for coral, endangered species and other marine life.

The Gulf of Mexico – home to approximately 3,600 offshore oil and gas platforms – is set to lose a third of those structures in the next five years, which many claim will destroy almost 2,000 acres of coral reef habitat and the seven billion invertebrates that thrive on or near the platforms. Such organisms include federally protected species, like scleractinian corals, octocorals, hydrozoans and gorgonians.

Despite an unlikely consensus that the decommissioned rigs create prolific ecosystems, a law enacted more than 30 years ago requires that many of these platforms be ripped from the ocean floor – in turn destroying a habitat used by countless organisms for feeding, spawning, mating and maturation.

“Every time they pull these rigs up, they destroy endangered species and all kinds of snapper.”

- Paul Cozic, director of Hell Divers' Spearfishing Club

Pressure to remove the old rigs comes on two fronts. A 1970s federal law, enacted before the benefits of leaving them on the ocean floor were understood, called for companies to remove them. Though still in effect, subsequent state rulings that cited the boon to marine life that the rigs can provide conflicted with it. The older law was not strictly enforced until the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which left hundreds of rigs damaged and unusable. Even then, it appears to be in conflict with state laws, federal programs and even scientific consensus.

Oil companies also find it in their interest to remove some of the rigs – despite the estimated cost of $3 million – because they can be held liable in perpetuity for navigational hazards caused by the sunken wreckage.

“Rigs-to-Reefs,” a nationwide program developed in the mid-1980s by the former Minerals Management Service – now the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement under the U.S. Department of the Interior – advocates for some decommissioned offshore oil and petroleum rigs to become artificial reefs for the vast organisms that inhabit the ocean floor.

“The program is beneficial to all parties involved,” said Nat Spencer, a principal at Meridian Ocean Services, a U.S.-based subsea contractor currently conducting reef survey in the gulf with a Saab Seaeye Falcon DR remotely operated vehicle.

“The oil companies save decommissioning costs, the states increases their tax revenue through sport fishing, and the environmentalists see increased or steady fish populations on the platforms as well as a steady stream of annual recorded data about those populations,” Spencer told FoxNews.com. “It's a misconception that the rigs are left over the capped wells. The platforms are all severed from their original bases, then relocated to new areas which are separate from the original drilling locations.”

Environmental groups, like EcoRigs, a non-profit group based in southern Louisiana, say the issue of removing the rigs is a complex one.

Steve Kolian, the group’s founder, told FoxNews.com that the 1970’s law conflicts with legislation enacted in the 1980’s and 90’s that protects marine organisms – like the 1979 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was amended in 1996 to protect marine organisms and reef communities from destruction. That act prevents protected organisms such as scleractinian corals, hydrozoans, octocorals and gorgonians from being removed from the structure they live on.

“In the 1970’s, they made the platform removal regulations but they had no idea that there were all those protected species on there,” said Kolian. “It conflicts with the later laws that protect marine organisms.”

Kolian said a common misperception is that the oil well and platform are connected. The wells are required to be capped by pumping them with concrete once they are no longer in commission. The platforms, meanwhile, are “just metal structures,” according to Kolian.

“The platforms are not guilty of producing green house gas or spilling and all those other things associated with the oil industry,” he said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced legislation in May that would increase the use of decommissioned Gulf platforms as artificial reefs, as part of the Rigs to Reefs program.

“We in the Gulf Coast are familiar with how idle rigs can develop into fertile marine habitats, home to some of the best fishing in the world,” Vitter said in a statement Wednesday to FoxNews.com. “These artificial reefs are incredibly important to the growth and sustainability of the economy and environment in the Gulf.”

Vitter argues that his bill, if enacted, known as The Artificial Reef Promotion Act, will bring the decades-old Rigs-to-Reefs program “into the 21st century.” The act requires that 20 new reef planning areas be created after a year of enactment, including six off each of the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, three off the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, and five off of the coast of Florida.

Critics of the Rigs-to-Reef program argue that a rusting steel rig may be detrimental to the environment and say more scientific research is needed to assess the long-term impact on aquatic life. And some commercial fisheries claim artificial reefs damage their fishing nets and also pose a navigational hazard.

Adding to the complexity of the issue, is the requirement that oil companies spend money to maintain the rig for as long as it sits on the ocean floor.    

“Once you put that oil rig there, you’re responsible for it forever. So there is a benefit to the oil company to get it removed,” said Paul Cozic, director of Hell Divers' Spearfishing Club, which advocates a moratorium on the removal of oil rigs.

“Every time they pull these rigs up, they destroy endangered species and all kinds of snapper,” Cozic said. “People travel all over the world to see the type of coral and marine life that’s on these rigs.”