California's Offshore Rigs: Safe Enough to Be Reefs?

Removal of platforms stirs debate over role as fish havens

In the tony tourist mecca of Santa Barbara, oil never bubbles far beneath the surface. Offshore rigs dot the horizon alongside surfers and sailboats. The crude is so prevalent it flows into the ocean from natural seeps.

Yet the erector-set of platforms has also produced its share of unnatural seeps over the the years - most notably the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which became a rallying cry for the environmental movement nationwide.

Now the uneasy coexistence between the environment and Oil Age is again stirring controversy - this time over the rigs' removal.

At issue is whether to take down aging platforms or leave parts behind as artificial reefs. For years, oil companies have left dismantled rigs rooted in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But environmental-minded California is just now beginning to debate the idea - and Santa Barbara is the test case.

"People are definitely happy to see any platforms leave," says Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, an opponent of the rigs. "We always think of Santa Barbara as paradise. Yet a lot of visitors come here and one of the first things they say is, 'These things are ugly. How did you guys ever let them do that?' "

Chevron is finishing a $40-million removal of four platforms - Hazel, Hilda, Hope, and Heidi - off southern Santa Barbara County this summer. Although the obsolete rigs will disappear, the process has spurred debate about turning other platforms into artificial reefs to boost declining fish populations.

"We have overexploited our resources," says Dan Frumkes of the United Anglers of Southern California and a reef advocate. "If man has done the negative and we have a way to kind of compensate, I don't think that's inappropriate. We can do that by increasing the amount of good places for marine life to live."

In the Gulf, oil companies cut legs at a depth safe for navigation, submerge parts of the platforms, and give some of the savings in removal costs to the state for marine programs. Such a project has never been done in California, which has about two dozen platforms remaining in state and federal waters.

"It didn't work out for these particular platforms, but Chevron is interested," says Greg Sinclair, Chevron's project engineer for the rig removal. "We have other platforms we have to take out in the future and would be interested in pursuing a rigs-to-reef option."

Platform legs often form vertical reefs for fish and invertebrates. Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara found one in the Santa Barbara Channel that sheltered at least 25,000 fish, plus thousands of mussels, crabs, and starfish. Milton Love, head of the UCSB research team, says platforms provide crucial habitat for species depleted by heavy fishing. "If someone said, 'Well, there's this rocky reef and we're just going to dynamite it, haul it away, and cut it up for scrap,' people would go nuts," he says "And yet that's what's being done."

But many environmentalists and fishermen insist obsolete rigs should be removed entirely. "We definitely feel the oil platforms need to be removed because they are a safety hazard," says Ms. Krop. "The materials are not compatible with marine life. In some cases, they might have to do some pretty extensive cleanup. We don't want to get in the way of that by just leaving them in place."

Removing an oil platform is no simple task. It took Chevron four years to navigate the permit process. To ensure that no marine mammals were injured by underwater demolition, crews broadcast recordings of killer whales through underwater speakers and sent out spotters in aircraft and boats.

By the end of this summer, all visible traces of the rigs will be gone. The question then becomes: What about future rigs?

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