First life, oil rig; next life, reef?
(Reuters) - In an ironic twist, scientists, fishermen and conservationists are urging that hundreds of dormant oil rigs be left standing in the Gulf of Mexico, arguing that a U.S. federal plan to remove them will endanger coral reefs and fish.
While environmentalists might more typically be expected to oppose artificial intrusions in the marine habitat, those seeking a halt to the removal want time to study the impact of rig destruction on the Gulf Coast's economy and to catalog the species, some rare and endangered, that are clinging to the sunken metal.
"I am not supporting oil rigs. I am supporting fish habitat that just happens to on petroleum platforms," said Bob Shipp (AFS member, 89), chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama.
U.S. Department of Interior officials say the federal "idle iron" policy, updated in 2010, makes good sense after storms during the 2005 hurricane season toppled 150 defunct oil rigs, causing considerable damage.
If defunct rigs are toppled by storms, they can break loose and hit other rigs - potentially causing an oil spill - be swept to land and destroy a dock or a bridge, knock into and damage natural reefs and cause problems with ship navigation.
"Cleaning up afterwards is a lot more expensive and inefficient," said David Smith, spokesman for the department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Federal law has long required the removal of drilling infrastructure no longer in use, but a 2010 agency notice asked operators to detail plans for 650 dormant oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and 3,500 inactive wells.
Companies have to demonstrate the infrastructure will be put to use eventually or offer a plan to move ahead with decommissioning, the agency said.
The structures have attracted as many as 3 acres (1.2 hectares) of coral habitat per rig, and some 30,000 fish live off of each reef, according to Shipp.
"They developed into an oasis for reef fishes," said Shipp, a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.