Oil platform's life forms on slippery turf
Thirty years after the High Island 389-A in the Gulf of Mexico was built, the lush ecosystem around it is also in danger of going away. The prospect of losing such a rich ecosystem has brought together allies fighting to make it a protected reef, writes Melissa Gaskill.
The dormant oil platform known as High Island 389-A rises out of the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles southeast of Galveston. Below the surface, corals, sea fans and sponges cover its maze of pipes.
Schools of jack and snapper, solitary grouper and barracuda circle in its shadows. Dive boats periodically stop at the enormous structure, where dolphins, sea turtles and sharks are often spotted.
There are now about 650 such oil and gas industry relics, known as idle iron, that may meet this fate.The US federal government estimates that the blasts needed to remove one platform kill 800 fish, although others who have observed the process put the number in the thousands.
Much of the marine life on or around the structure dies, either from the explosions to separate the platform from its supports or when it is toppled or towed to shore and recycled as scrap metal. The prospect of losing so much life has brought together an unusual collection of allies hoping to convert High Island and many similar rigs into protected reefs.
“These structures attract marine life that normally wouldn’t use the area,” said Greg Stuntz, chairman of ocean and fisheries health at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. Much is growing on them, from corals up to marine mammals.
Fate of the oil platform
A typical four-legged platform becomes the equivalent of two to three acres of habitat, according to estimates by government scientists. The US Interior Department gives owners of nonproducing platforms one to five years to remove them, depending on the status of their drilling lease and where the rigs are.
High Island’s owner has until January to act. The platform, built in 1981, falls within the 56-square-mile Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, one of 14 federally designated underwater areas protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the only such area in the Gulf.
The department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement reports that 265 platforms were removed in 2011. Several people in the industry said that 150 or more of the 650 rigs on the list are scheduled for removal in 2012, and each year, more platforms become potential candidates as they cease production or leases expire. But campaigns to save them are under way.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishery resources in the Gulf’s exclusive economic zone, an area nine to 200 miles off the Texas coast where the US federal government has jurisdiction over resources and economic matters is seeking recognition of offshore platforms as essential fish habitat. That designation could bring into play the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which prohibits removal of protected corals from federal waters.
John Hoffman, chief executive of Black Elk Energy, an oil and gas company based in Houston, has founded a nonprofit organisation, Save the Blue, that would help insure and maintain platforms that are spared removal. Saving what lies beneath the platforms matters, said Jim Smarr, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “We’ve done more damage to the Gulf ecosystem destroying these rigs than what recreational fishermen did in decades,” he said.
The shrimp season was cut short because of concerns about the number of red snapper caught in shrimp nets, Smarr said, and with recreational fishing on a 60-day season, “we have shrimpers and fishing guides going out of business because of supposed shortages of red snapper. Yet it doesn’t bother them to blow up rigs and kill more than our total annual catch every time.”
Efforts are also under way to save High Island 389-A. This year, W&T Offshore, the oil and gas acquisition and exploration company that owns the platform, told G P Schmahl, superintendent of the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary, that the company would prefer to convert High Island to an artificial reef. If the plan is approved, the structure would likely be removed down to 85 feet below the water surface, as required under a federal rigs-to-reefs programme.
An environmental assessment is required for removal, and Schmahl says that because High Island stands within a sanctuary, NOAA must also weigh in. All of that takes time.
So those hoping to save the platform have some breathing room – and at the very least, a chance for another dive. “Some people say High Island is their favourite dive in the sanctuary, and it is an exhilarating experience,” Schmahl said.