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Marine Life Complicates Removal of Old Oil Rigs

Under the Rigs to Reefs program, the platforms are either towed elsewhere and sunk, tipped on their sides or cut down well below the water's surface so they would no longer be hazards to navigation.

The problem, Sammarco said, is that "an oil rig's biggest contribution to marine life, whether to the species that naturally settle on it or to future aquaculture or biotechnology uses, is in the shallow waters where sunlight penetrates."

For that, he said, the structure needs to remain at or near the Gulf's surface.

"The federal law and resulting state management plans were devised before anyone knew about the profusion of marine life on oil rigs," said Steve Kolian, a marine scientist at the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

Kolian is a member of the Louisiana Platforms for Mariculture Task Force, which is calling for a revision of the law to make the platform removal requirements more flexible.

Getting rid of the platforms currently costs the oil and gas companies $300 million to $400 million each year, according to industry reports, and under the current law, they will eventually face a bill of more than $10 billion to remove all obsolete oil structures.

Chuck Bedell, director of environmental affairs for Murphy Oil Corp., a Louisiana company with ongoing production in the Gulf of Mexico, said that, because of the costs, the industry supports the effort to keep rigs in place, "as long as we can find a way to transfer ownership and liability for 'retired' platforms."

In the previous Congress, then-Rep. David Vitter (R-La.), now a senator, introduced a bill to authorize the use of obsolete oil platforms for culturing marine species, scientific research and as artificial reefs.

"Nations like Japan are spending billions of dollars to create offshore structures for mariculture," Vitter said. "Our waters already have them in place, but our policy is to remove them, destroying thriving marine environments." The House bill died, but Vitter said he plans to try again in the Senate.

Vitter may have to contend with the recent efforts of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Murkowski introduced a bill in the previous Congress to block permits for fish farms more than three miles offshore until further scientific studies can be conducted. She cited fears that closely packed fish in pens could spread disease, as well as concerns over the possible genetic impact of escaped farmed fish interbreeding with their wild counterparts.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, in a report issued last year, backed open-ocean aquaculture under specific conditions.

In response, the White House has proposed a National Offshore Aquaculture Act giving the Department of Commerce authority to regulate open-ocean aquaculture, clearing the way for such ventures.

Al Walker, owner of Xtreme Fishing Charters in Venice, La., hopes that "all these efforts don't somehow get tangled up."

Taking out an oil rig in the Gulf, he said, "is like cutting down a forest of thousand-year-old trees. While they're debating in Washington, marine life on the Gulf's oil rigs -- and the people and businesses that might benefit from it -- are left high and dry."

Said Sammarco: "We've created these ecosystems, now it's up to us to keep them alive. Removing old oil rigs is 'pulling the plug' on many of the Gulf of Mexico's rare and important marine species."

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