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Reef madness 

Kari Dequine Harden on the fight to save offshore oil platforms and the ecosystems they support

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click to enlarge Colorful coral and other marine life thrive around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Colorful coral and other marine life thrive around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

  The Hell Divers choose platforms for their expeditions because of the wealth and variety of sea life that latches onto and swims among the trellises of the colossal metal towers. Some members have been diving around platforms for half a century — a culture they want to preserve for their children and grandchildren. Cozic says he has noticed a number of the locations where he once dived for fish are now gone, the reef destroyed and the marine life dead or displaced.

  "It's sad when you go out there and your favorite rig is gone," he says. Still designated on their GPS as what they knew for years as an oft-dived underwater oasis of fish and coral, Hell Divers are saddened to find an empty spot of open water. The last time he went out for a dive, Cozic noticed four or five platforms had vanished.

  There are many arguments for dismantling the platforms: public concern over the environmental consequences of oil and gas exploration, including coastal erosion, disappearing wetlands and damage to reefs on the ocean floor; fallout from the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf; dangers the structures pose to marine traffic; and the money to be made in removing them.

  There also are reasons against dismantling platforms: destruction of ecosystems dependent on the structures; a decline in the biodiversity that attracts sports fishermen; and the ensuing decline in profitability for businesses focused on that industry.

  At the heart of the issue is liability. Unless platforms are outfitted with lights and horns, they are navigational hazards and the owners are liable for damages that might occur. The law currently doesn't allow oil and gas production companies to sell a platform and transfer liability to a new owner; there's a cradle-to-grave liability that makes removal attractive — unless a platform enters Louisiana's Rigs to Reefs program, which was started in 1986 as an incentive for companies to donate their platforms to the state, which then assumes liability. Platforms accepted into the program are toppled where they stand, partially removed and then toppled or moved to a designated area before being toppled.

  While it sounds good, veteran Hell Diver Terry "Papa Smurf" Migaud says it's not the win-win situation it appears to be. To comply with Coast Guard regulations, the top of the platforms must be cut off to at least 85 feet under the surface of the water to avoid being a hazard to seagoing craft. The Hell Divers and scientists at EcoRigs, however, argue that one of the most unique aspects of the vertical reef structure of a platform is that it supports a diversity of species at all levels: shallow, mid and deepwater, and those top feet support the most life.

  "You have to have the complete vertical ecosystem," Migaud says.

  "The food chain is not complete (without the top feet of the platform)," Smith adds.

  The toppled platforms also are not the same as the standing structures. Hell Divers Vincent LeBlanc and Ryan Saucier say they've tried fishing at the toppled platforms but found it wasn't worth the trip. The fish just aren't there, they say.

  A study conducted from 2003 to 2009 by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) backs up their assertion. The study compared reefs developed in four situations: a platform in place, a platform partially removed and toppled, a platform toppled in place and a natural reef. The study concluded that there were significantly more fish around the standing platform — about 12,000 compared to 2,500 at a toppled platform: "Overall, we found that fish biomass and density around the standing oil and gas platform were higher than the artificial reefs or natural reef."

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