Protecting and preserving ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the most beautiful and majestic marine life on Earth.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the most beautiful and majestic marine life on Earth. Its marine life can rival the beauty of the Caribbean and the Great Barrier Reef. Regrettably, the Gulf's marine environment and the thousands of fish and mammals it supports are in danger of being destroyed in the next few years. If we do not make a change, the Gulf as we know it today will surely become a very different and very desolate place in the not-too-distant future.

To make sense of this assertion, let's look back to the geography and history of the region. For tens of thousands of years, the Gulf of Mexico had little hard bottom associated and had virtually no substrate for corals and habitats to form. In 1947, the oil and gas industry began deploying drilling platforms in the Gulf and essentially changed the marine landscape. These platforms acted as settling substrate for corals. Over time, the platforms were covered with plants and animals associated with Caribbean coral reefs and became home to abundant populations of reef-associated fish. Today, the Gulf's platforms provide 2-3 acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species. Without the platforms and other artificial reefs, fish and other marine life would become widely dispersed and geographically isolated, negatively impacting commercial fishing, recreational fishing and sport diving. Unfortunately, the flourishing marine life is in jeopardy as these shallow water structures approach the end of their oil and gas life.

Current government regulations require that oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico be fully removed at the end of their producing life. The original plan, mandated by federal environmental regulation back in the late ‘70s, was to remove the structures as they ceased production. Most offshore fields in water depths less than 600 ft are projected to become unproductive within the next 10–15 years, requiring that 150 to 200 platforms be removed annually from this point forward. The laws governing the Gulf were determined at a time before officials could have understood the beauty of the marine life that would flourish around these structures. These laws were never meant to harm the Gulf or the communities the Gulf supports. That said, by complying with the laws, operators are hurting the marine habitats and the states that rely on the Gulf for environmental and economic survival.

Scientific observation and research has revealed that numerous species of corals and marine life, some of which are considered endangered or protected, are destroyed in the decommissioning of offshore platforms. The Rigs-to-Reef Act was a step in the right direction, acknowledging the value of ecosystems associated with the structures. However, the Act misses the mark as it requires platforms to be cut down to 85 ft below the surface where the bulk of the valuable ecosystems are found.

These removals would be disastrous for marine life and negatively impact fishing and tourism economies of the Gulf Coast states. Understanding this danger, there must be an effort made to ensure the future of the Gulf of Mexico. With this effort in mind, Save the Blue, Inc. was formed with support of key individuals from various Gulf industries, coming together for the common goal of protecting and preserving ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. Save the Blue believes there is solution to avoid disaster for the Gulf.

The Save the Blue proposal simply calls for an ecosystem study to be performed near the end of a platform's useful life. Should a thriving ecosystem be determined to exist, then each well and pipeline abandonment would be conducted as dictated in the regulations, but the structure be allowed to remain in place to protect and preserve the marine life. Hurricane risk could be mitigated by removal of decks, eliminating wave-in-deck failure potential. Navigation aids would be moved from the decks to the remaining legs above the water level at a sufficient height to protect mariners. Anodes would be maintained to ensure the structural steel is protected. With proper care and protection, these platforms can maintain their integrity. Owners of the platforms would donate the structure and monetary liability funds into a private trust fund to maintain and preserve the ecosystems for future generations of fishing, diving, and research. The trust fund would maintain insurance on the structures should any unforeseen catastrophic damage occur to the structures. With this proposal in action, the environment could be protected and the marine life preserved for many generations to come.

If the current requirements remain in force, every year for the next 20 years, platform and structural removals will virtually eliminate the vast majority of ecosystems in the Gulf. Entire populations of invertebrates will die immediately and the obligatory reef fish will be lost to the process of mandatory removal. Each year, more fish, coral, and marine life will be lost and disappear from the Gulf forever.

Understanding the difficulties that lay ahead, a new solution is in order which requires multi-industry support, education and outreach to the public. Working together, we can make a difference, protecting marine life in the Gulf for centuries to come. To learn more, please go towww.save-the-blue.org.

John Hoffman
President/CEO, Black Elk Energy
Founder and Director, Save the Blue, Inc.

This page reflects viewpoints on the political, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental issues that shape the future of the petroleum industry. Offshore Magazine invites you to share your thoughts. Email your Beyond the Horizon manuscript to David Paganie atdavidp@pennwell.com.

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