Happy Fish Are Fueling a Battle to Preserve Offshore Rigs as Artificial Reefs

la-magLos Angeles Magazine | December 1, 2016 | Adam Popescu

Sprawled on the bottom level of a massive oil rig more than 11 miles from the shores of Long Beach, the half-dozen sea lions grow louder as our boat glides closer. One chews on a fish, holding it with long flippers, while nearly 300 feet above it rises the Ellen, a Mad Max-worthy assemblage of metal tubing and cables that pumps about 2,600 barrels of crude every day. A short distance away, attached by a latticework bridge, is its little sister, the Elly.

If it’s strange to see wildlife on such a foreboding structure as it whirs and grinds, it’s stranger to think of all the sea life among the oil platform’s mooring lines and steel legs as
they extend about 260 feet to the ocean floor. Toward the surface zebra-striped sheepsheads, orange Garibaldis, and spiny cabezons swim among colonies of barnacles and mussels; farther down, you find scallops, sponges, and sea stars extending to the seabed, where rockfish and shrimp and other crustaceans make their home. Coral grows so freely that, to keep platforms from being undermined, oil operators scrape the legs every few years, removing up to a two-foot layer.

“The deeper you go, the more marine life there is,” says Cal State Long Beach marine biologist Chris Lowe as our 26-foot boat sways. Fifty-three years old, with a cap pulled low above tan cheeks and a thin goatee, he’s studied the Pacific for two decades. “The sheer biomass here is some of the most productive habitat on the planet,” he adds. That was the conclusion of a study published in 2014 by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, Occidental College, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. In one of Lowe’s own studies, which stretched from 2007 to 2009, he attached sensors to small fish around the platforms and relocated them as far as ten miles away. “Twenty-five percent of the fish went back to the platform we took them from,” he says. “We found fish would stay on the platform for months or years; some would hopscotch from other platforms. One we caught twice, and it went back twice. Platform habitat is preferred to natural habitat—how can that be?”

For people like Lowe, it’s an especially promising phenomenon at a time when natural marine habitat is being lost as a result of beachfront construction, water pollution (from fertilizer runoff, industrial contaminants, sunblock), and other human causes. So the 27 oil platforms off the Southern California coast are in a sense filling a void, even if the petroleum products they help produce are tied to the rising ocean temperatures that may enlarge that void. The big question is what to do with the structures when the drilling stops.

In 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB2503, otherwise known as the Rigs-to-Reefs Law, which permits certain oil and gas platforms to be left in place rather than completely removed once their drilling days are done. It was a third attempt to pass such a law. Before the bill went through the state assembly, platform operators were required to take out decommissioned rigs in their entirety after the wellheads were plugged. It’s a messy affair that involves dismantling the above-water portion and then using saws or explosives to extricate the legs. Millions of animals—fish, but also what’s attached to the structures—die in the process. The tab could run into the tens of millions of dollars. Under Rigs-to-Reefs, owners of platforms whose conversion would offer a “net environmental benefit” and “substantial cost savings” could lop off the top of a platform, beginning 85 feet below the water’s surface so that vessels could pass safely above. A chunk of the savings would be deposited into a preservation fund.

But what might seem like a winning compromise has been looking like a loser. Opposition among environmental groups remains fierce, and participation in the voluntary program remains nonexistent—which people like state senator Robert Hertzberg, who represents the San Fernando Valley, blames on vagaries of the bill. “It was so bad that after five years, not a single oil company applied because the process didn’t work,” he says, calling the 2010 bill “a bureaucratic cluster.” So he introduced a subsequent bill intended to make it somewhat more attractive to oil companies to participate by reducing their payout and putting a commission, rather than the state’s Natural Resources Agency, in the lead oversight role of environmental review. It died in committee this past August.

Read the full story here.

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