Selected tags: oil

A Big Step Forward for Better Rigs To Reef Management

A large group of chub (Kyphosus sp.) school under the platform. Photo: Schmahl/FGBNMS (From NOAA)

As I’ve written before, the Rigs to Reefs permitting process of the federal and state agencies in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of “finding ways that work.”  This cooperative process enables the owners of oil and gas platforms to use those structures to support artificial reefs.  In fact, this means the rigs continue serving as artificial reefs because they have already attracted fish, coral, and other marine life as the rigs produced oil or gas.

Over the past few years, the issue of rig removal has become a heated topic among anglers as the federal government undertook more aggressive measures to remove retired rigs.  The officials responsible for safe retirement of end-of-service rigs and the anglers and divers who benefit from the marine life around those rigs have been at odds over the best ways to maintain reef habitats while also providing for other uses of the Gulf. That tension was reduced this week when the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a division of the Department of Interior, issued a new policy addressing several sticking points that arose in recent years.  Most of the log jam has been caused by basic questions of process:  how many rigs would remain as reef habitat, where would they be placed, and how would they be secured?

The pressure built as the number of rigs reaching the end of their productive life and the end of their leases began to rise.  Starting in 2005, the number of applications for removals spiked, and Hurricane Katrina damaged even more platforms and disrupted existing artificial reefs.  These pressures complicated the challenge for the Department of Interior to assure safe disposition of an increasing number of platforms.

In 2010 – after the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the department issued a notice to lease-holders that it was modifying procedures to ensure faster removals in the interest of safety.  Anglers and divers began to see more rigs being removed, and many were removed using explosives that would leave hundreds of dead fish floating in the wake of the project.

The clamor, however, also involved effective coordination among all concerned.  The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, working with the White House National Ocean Council, the other cabinet agencies, scientists, and stakeholders, developed changes to policy that will ease the process.  Sportsmen groups such as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation played a leading role.  EDF, after stepping forward as an early supporter of revising the 2010 policy, encouraged and supplied data to these discussions.  We are proud to say that we were the only major ENGO to speak out for the interests of anglers in this debate.

The most important features of the new policy are that it drops the requirement for distance between reef sites, adds an allowance for creating a reef where a rig currently stands, and extends deadlines for removal for platform owners seeking approval for a reefing project.

This improved approach is a step in the right direction, and we are hopeful that it will lead to better fish habitat, populations, and recreational opportunities.  It is especially welcome as reef-fish issues and red snapper management in particular are hot topics in the Gulf right now.

Congratulations are due to all those who are dedicated to finding ways that work.

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“Red Herrings” in the Gulf of Mexico – Part 1: It Ain’t the Oil

This is the first post in a four part series discussing the ongoing – and “cascading” – effects in the Gulf, not from oil, but rather its toxic components and their impacts on sensitive ecosystems. Read the rest of the series.

In recent weeks, nearly every discussion about the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has focused on the question: “how much of the oil from the broken well is left in the Gulf?” 

The answer is simple:  “None – it ain’t the oil, stupid!”    

For some time now,  the problem hasn’t been the oil in the Gulf,  it’s the complicated series of impacts caused by the diverse substances that made up the oil as they are degraded in stages, both biologically and chemically. Each step along the way – and even the final breakdown products – poses important threats to a different suite of living things.  The total damage done by this complex array of shifting impacts on the sensitive ecosystems  and the people of the Gulf remains largely unknown.


Sure, some elements of the complex ecology of the Gulf of Mexico may get off scot-free from the disaster.  But many others have been or will be heavily impaired, at least for some time.  Taken together, there will be a significant total effect on the ecological systems of the Gulf, including the productivity and safety  of seafood, and significant  bottom-line impacts will be felt  on human health and social and economic well-being. 

Oil or Not Oil?

From the beginning of the disaster back in April, as “Gulf Light Sweet Crude” oil spewed  into the depths of the Gulf, the components of that oil – a “toxic soup” of hundreds of different chemicals – have been subjected to intense physical, chemical and biological sorting and processing, and to transportation by currents both towards and away from shore. 

This is an underwater look at one of the oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico in late May. Click to watch the video.

By the time the well was capped in mid-July, a significant amount  of the approximately 200,000,000 gallons of liquid flowing from the broken well made it to the surface as recognizable oil.  But from the very beginning, the various “toxic soup” ingredients have followed radically different pathways through the complex oceanographic and living systems of the Gulf, spreading and being processed in different directions at different depths, and at different rates.

It is clear that all layers of the sea in a large zone around the well have been exposed, from bottom to top, as the spreading and rising cone (or “plume”) of oil-based materials spewed from the well. In contrast to a more typical oil spill on the water’s surface, where the transport and ecological fate of oil components are well-known, there are still many unknowns related to how the various chemicals have moved and are breaking down underwater, including the biochemical pathways and timetables.  Intense scientific investigation and complicated modeling are necessary before these complex relationships can be understood fully.

The addition of dispersants, both at the bottom and the top of the water column, has further altered the chemicals’ pathways through the ecosystem,  likely lessening some kinds of impacts and exacerbating others.It may well turn out that chemicals derived from oil spread over a much larger area because of the addition of dispersants, both at the bottom and the top.  The final accounting of the ecological and human winners and losers has yet to be made.

At the end of the day, the complex set of effects on the living systems of the Gulf from the oil and its chemical components will be understood, more or less.  The impacts on the human populations will be estimated, if not fully understood.  It is grossly premature to declare victory, though, until we understand the ways in which the basic fabric of the ecosystems of the Gulf has been altered, and what might be required to restore its weave.

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