Will impromptu ecosystems thriving on the legs of Southern California oil rigs be spared?

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Posted by Max Bottomtime on June 04, 2017 at 16:48:04:

By Rachel Uranga, The Daily Breeze
POSTED: 06/03/17, 4:29 PM PDT
Photos by Chris Grossman

Several miles off the Southern California coast, deep below the ocean’s surface, schools of fish dart in and out of spectacular reefs — glowing brilliant green, red and pink.

They aren’t carved out of pristine coves far from civilization. These mostly unseen habitats, rich in life and color, cling to aging platforms dotting the coastline that still pump out torrents of crude oil.

To many, these structures represent offshore drilling, a practice associated with some of the worst man-made disasters to strike the world’s oceans. But to the teeming flora and fauna that decorate the legs of these structures, they are home.

And the California Legislature just might take new steps soon to protect them — for good.

“Those platforms, of all studied marine habitats, are the most productive habitats ever studied,” said Dan Pondella, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College and co-author of a 2014 study that looked at sea life around California’s rigs.

The findings confirmed what many sport fishermen and diving enthusiasts had long suspected — that these tall, spindly industrial towers are veritable catalogs of California’s underwater species.

But some fear these reactive communities are artificial and accidental — and could actually be a long-range danger to the health of the coastline, harboring invasive species and other risks.


Initially, after the towers were built, mussels, scallops and other crustaceans began to hold tight to the outer layers of the oil structures.

After awhile, they lured fish seeking a meal.

And, as the currents kept rolling in, micro-environments grew stronger with each season at each structure.

Underneath the surface, the view is stunning.

The rigs are still operating, so an ironic soundtrack is provided by the sound of black liquid as it pulses through the pipes.

“The color jumps out at you,” said Perry Hampton, vice president of animal husbandry at the Aquarium of the Pacific who has dived around the reefs.

“There are organisms of every size and shape and color imaginable, from the tiniest sea stars up to seals and sea lions and sharks. The prevalence of marine life on these things is just extraordinary.”

Pondella explains these underwater towers bring an “unusual” amount of life as the currents run through them.

“It’s more productive than the most pristine coral reef in the most remote part of the Pacific Ocean.”


But the rigs’ future remain uncertain, as is the lives that line their legs.

In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to preserve the 27 structures along the coast, looming not far from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Long Beach and Huntington Beach.

Operators never took advantage of those Sacramento victories, however.

The latest iteration making its way through the Legislature faces opposition from some environmental groups — including the Sierra Club California and the Surfrider Foundation.

Previously, platform operators were called upon to shut off the pumping, plug the wellheads and completely remove the structures once they were no longer active. The goal: Restore the marine environment to its natural state before the drills were cut loose.

The cost to do so, however, reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Such a solution would mean stripping away reams of coral climbing the underside of the derricks. So a compromise was sought, allowing the companies to leave the underwater giants in place once the wellheads were plugged — and leave unchallenged the burgeoning ecosystems created around these artificial reefs.

California Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, is proposing a fix that he hopes will encourage companies to decommission the wells.

His bill, sponsored by the Sportsfishing Conservancy, maps out a process for the companies to turn over the platforms to the State Lands Commission. The companies would pay into an already established fund, the California Endowment for Marine Preservation.

“Moving the state’s rigs-to-reefs program forward is important because it will help protect the ocean environment from the excessive damage and pollution caused by fully extracting oil rigs from the ocean floor,” Hertzberg said in an email.

“Artificial reefs provide unbelievably robust marine life, which is good for the ocean, and the program creates massive funding from oil companies that will be used for environmental programs.”

The bill passed the Senate last week and is headed to the Assembly.


But not everybody is buying it.

“The question becomes ‘Are we going to let the companies off the hook for something that they willingly agreed to decades ago?’ ” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation.

Charter says the goal should be to return the seas to the state they enjoyed before the towers rose, not protect the hodgepodge of life that responded to their construction.

“The fundamental debate is whether nature designs a better ocean than human beings design,” he said. “There are places in the ocean for millions and millions of years that have evolved a certain range of species and a certain type of habitat and that created a balance environment.

“Once you alter the natural habitat, you introduce an artificial mix of species.”

Charter points to hundreds of decommissioned oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that still stand.

“If you have an artificial environment that brings invasive species, a dumped oil rig is not a coral reef by any stretch of the imagination.”

The opposition resonates in Santa Barbara, where mistrust of oil companies runs deep.

Local politics are still steeped in the heartbreak and environmental ruin of the 1969 oil spill. And memories are still fresh from the 2015 Refugio oil spill, when more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil blanketed the coastal bluffs.

Charter said the biggest problem is that some of the studies used to justify the effort are paid for by oil interests.

Scientists counter that, while some of the work has been funded in part by these groups, others — like Pondella’s research — were paid for by the state.

And studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and university grants have verified similar findings about the rigs’ usefulness as biological spheres.


Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach, believes that fears of possible risks posed by these impromptu ecosystems need to be tempered.

“All the studies, regardless of who is funding them, tell us that these platforms are ecologically significant,” he said. “Even though there are not very many of them and they don’t have a big footprint, they are unbelievably productive.”

Lowe has done several studies, including two funded in part by the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Program, which gets funding from ExxonMobil.

He describes himself as an academic whose work is unbiased. And, like it or not, many scientists sometimes must rely on funds from industry, he said.

“These things are expensive to study and nobody wants to fund it,” Lowe said. But, he maintained, it doesn’t change the findings.

In one study, Lowe looked at rockfish captured on three different platforms in the Santa Barbara channel to better understand what would happen if the rigs were removed.

He tagged fish and placed them at least seven miles away at another reef.

About a quarter of the fish returned to the rigs.

“It tells us a lot about how much they like that habitat,” he said.

California sheephead, scorpion fish and cabezon are among the species that move up and down the length of the platform looking for food depending on the water temperature.

Unlike many natural reefs, the structure has nooks and crannies where the fish can hide, even from an angler’s hook.

Lowe likens it to the fish having winter and summer homes.

“I had a misconception,” he said. “I thought these were going to noisy and corroded places. I thought why would any fish want to live there?”

But that wasn’t the case.

“If you give a fish a choice between living in a natural reef or platform, they prefer the platform.”

It’s become their home, he said.

“Those platforms have been in place for 50 years,” he said. “In decommissioning a platform, you are killing zillions of animals — or taking away a home.”

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