Can oil rigs help sustain marine life?

OFFSHORE LONG BEACH There are 27 platforms off the California coast. Part of the deal when the platforms were built was that oil companies would pay for the complete removal of the immense structures when the oil dried up. But now there's a push to keep the rigs in place.

What goes on beneath the surface at these oil rigs? Click here to view a slideshow from this report.

When Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) marine biologist Chris Lowe looks at an offshore oil rig, he sees something most of us don't.

"You'll get thousands, maybe even millions, of bait fish swirling around in these beautiful silver balls. Sea lions are diving through them," said Dr. Lowe.

It seems to defy reason. Something so alien to nature actually sustaining life in a way most never would have imagined.

The question at the heart of the research done by Dr. Lowe and his students at CSULB is, Do these oil rigs give refuge to fish and other marine life?

"We've taken fish off an oil platform and translocated to natural habitat to see if they'd come back. And it turns out 25 percent of the fish taken off have gone back to their platform -- and done it within a couple days to a week," said Dr. Lowe.

George Steinbach is with California Artificial Reef Enhancement (CARE).

"What you see above the water is not even half the story," said Steinbach.

A group funded primarily by oil companies, CARE wants to keep California's offshore oil rigs in place even after the oil has run dry. It's a move that would save oil companies up to one billion dollars in removal and clean-up costs.

CARE created video to prove its point.

"There's millions of fish, and millions - perhaps billions - of invertebrates that either live on or attached to the platforms," said Steinbach.

Removal of the rigs would be a death sentence for creatures that call the rigs home.

"They have to use explosives to dislodge it from the sea floor, and quite often the sonic blast that comes from that can kill a lot of fish," said Dr. Lowe.

Joe Geever of Surfrider Foundation is against any plan that would leave the oil rigs in place. He says the name "Rigs to Reef" oversimplifies a complicated issue.

"Beyond just these oil platforms, now they're talking about wave-energy facilitators and LNG terminals, and all sorts of industrial uses in the ocean," said Geever. "And does this set up precedent, once you're done with that stuff, just leave your junk behind and call it something quaint?"

Other opponents point to a 1969 incident, when nearly 4 million gallons of oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara after Union Oil's Platform A suffered a blow out. The massive, toxic oil slick tarred 35 miles of coastline and killed thousands of marine mammals, sea birds and fish.

Opponents say any oil rig left in place leaves open the possibility of another spill.

Today, California's oil rigs are home to sea lions, sea birds and all kinds of fish. Researchers and anglers say the rigs have become favorite fishing holes.

But that raises another question -- the safety of eating that fish.

"Are those heavy metals and other pollutants accumulating in the flesh of the fish that people would be catching on these reefs?" asked Geever.

"You know, some of the studies that have been done looking at pollution effects have actually showed that the water quality is cleaner, so mussels and things like that are cleaner than on the coast," said Dr. Lowe. "I would eat fish or invertebrates taken off the platform. I wouldn't be concerned with that."

One other option on the table is to leave the legs of the platforms in place, but cut off the tops so the rigs won't be visible from shore. The state resource agency is studying all the options and a decision could come within the year.

What goes on beneath the surface at these oil rigs? Click here to view a slideshow from this report.


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