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Oil platforms are forever

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Mon, Dec 29, 2008 at 6:33 pm

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Oil platforms are forever

12-29-08 by dugan

With a new administration a few weeks from office, and Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in opposition, the likelihood of new offshore oil
rigs popping up along the California coast may seem slim. But never
underestimate the lobbying power of oil. The San Francisco Chronicle
today offers a chilling overview
of how much coastal area the industry covets. There’s a map as well
(left), even showing where companies would like to put their
rigs–mostly within sight of land, because that’s where the oil is:

offshoremap.png"In California, any exploration and drilling would be close to shore,
experts say. In contrast to the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling could
occur in waters 10,000 feet deep, California’s holdings lie on its
narrow, shallow continental shelf, the underwater edge of land where
creatures died over the millennia to produce the oil."

exploration doesn’t have to get to the point of drilling the well to do
damage, because even the mapping of rock formations–which would
probably occur prior to leasing–requires use of explosives-level
seismic air guns. What’s that mean? Here’s a description from the
Canadian group, Oil Free Coast:

This deafening noise causes fish swim bladders to explode,
it kills marine larvae and disrupts the traditional migratory
paths of some fish species and marine mammals, such as whales
and dolphins. In some places, these disturbances have resulted
in reductions in commercial fish catches up to 50 percent,
and have caused whales to leave waters where they are habitually

for alleviating any future oil shortage, the comparative smidgen off
the California coast amounts to less than 1% of U.S. yearly usage. And
think what would be left behind: every oil rig ever built.

of offshore rigs built in the 1960s and ’70s are still visible off the
southern coast, but are steadily shutting down. Instead of removing
them–as the oil companies originally pledged–the industry is now
touting them as "artificial reefs" that are good for fish and birds.
The operators propose turning them over to the state and washing their
hands of liability.

A glossy oil industry-funded website touts
the benefits of "rigs to reefs." You can tell it’s an industry shill–a
"greenwash"–because nowhere on this "nonprofit" site does it ask for
contributions or even accept them. The industry just wants you to sign
up so it can use your name to prove public support. So go ahead and
sign up–as Mickey Mouse or Iron Man or Oil Watchdog. List Chevron’s
headquarters as your address: 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon, CA

A real nonprofit, the mainstream Planning and Conservation League, has a different view:

As you might imagine, when the end of offshore drilling operations
eventually comes, removing the platforms will cost the oil companies a
lot of money and those companies would like to avoid some or all of
these clean up costs.

Now they may get their way – if the state government lets them turn their "rigs into reefs."

Here’s how it’s rigged: the oil companies would be "excused" from their
current cleanup obligations, and may be allowed to simply cut off the
drilling platforms below the water line [or even leave them as is]. The understory of the drilling
platforms would then remain, supposedly providing fish habitat.

For example, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is not wild about the idea and is concerned that letting oil companies off the hook might harm, not help, fishing.

Other critical questions about the "rigs to reef" proposal have been
raised by the Environmental Defense Center, based in Santa Barbara,
which has actual "up close" experience
with the problems associated with offshore oil production.

Here are some of the issues that they identify:

· Habitat Value

Do oil platforms, in fact, provide good fish habitat? The EDC properly
demands that the State rely on an analysis performed by independent
scientists who are not funded by the oil industry or other proponents
of a rigs-to-reefs program, pointing out that NOAA has refused to
designate platforms as essential fish habitat.

· Pollution

The EDC notes that when the State tested the debris mounds left after
the Summerland 4-H offshore platforms were removed, the mounds were
found to contain several toxic contaminants, including significant
levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, PCB’s, lead,
zinc, and poly-nuclear hydrocarbons. Any consideration of a "rigs to
reef" program should evaluate the potential contaminants not only from
the debris mounds surrounding the platforms, but also from the
platforms themselves as they may corrode over time.

· Safety

Navigation and safety hazards are real. When the 4-H platforms were
decommissioned, at least four commercial fishermen filed claims after
snagging gear on the remaining debris mounds.

· Liability

Current state and federal laws and
regulations require removal of oil platforms as part of
decommissioning. Most of the existing offshore platforms in California
are in federal jurisdiction, and current federal regulations would
require the state to accept title to and liability for the structure
and assume liability for a "rigs to reefs" program.

The EDC notes that a primary reason for the oil industry to
advocate for a "rigs to reefs" program is to avoid the costs of
liability, which can be enormous. They urge the State to determine the
costs of such liability, both in terms of direct costs such as
insurance, but also potential future costs, if claims are filed and not
covered or only partially covered by insurance.

· Costs of Maintenance

Leaving structures in the ocean will also require maintenance,
including containing and cleaning up pollutants, avoiding safety risks,
and enforcing any applicable fishing restrictions. According to the
EDC, the State should factor in these costs of maintenance before
considering a "rigs to reefs" program any further.

· Precedent

Other industries and businesses are likely to be interested in using
the ocean as a dumping ground for their leftover structures and
equipment. Such opportunities alleviate their costs of disposal,
especially if the materials contain hazardous materials. Would allowing
a "rigs to reefs" program open the door to unwanted materials being
deposited or left in the ocean? Current California Department of Fish
and Game (CDFG) Artificial Reef guidelines warn against an open policy
in this regard, and recommend reef materials such as quarry rock and
concrete boxes that are designed to mimic natural reefs.

· Incentive for new offshore oil and gas development

Industry representatives have claimed that the costs of decommissioning
can be an impediment to new oil and gas development. Therefore, the
elimination or reduction of these costs could provide an incentive for
new development. While finding new sources of money for marine
protection and restoration efforts seems good, maybe it’s not so good
when that money is generated by letting oil companies reduce their
current clean up obligations.

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This post was written by:

Judy Dugan

- who has written 655 posts on Oil Watchdog.

Judy Dugan concentrates as an advocate on health care reforms, oil industry issues and telecommunications. She also writes and edits foundation publications and conducts media outreach.

Contact the author

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