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.
Now, 30 years after it was built and months after it was abandoned, it is set to be demolished under Interior Department rules governing nonproducing ocean structures. And when it goes, the lush ecosystem that has grown around it will also vanish. There are now about 650 such oil and gas industry relics, known as idle iron, that may meet this fate.
The 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 structures 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.”
A typical four-legged platform becomes the equivalent of two to three acres of habitat, according to estimates by government scientists.
The Interior Department gives owners of nonproducing platforms one to five years to remove them, depending on the status of their drilling lease and where they are located. 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.
Interior cites legitimate concerns about the potential for spills from old wells and the risk and expense of removing structures damaged or toppled by storms as reasons for taking them out. 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 on the list are scheduled for removal in 2012; the bureau has received 158 removal applications so far this year.
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 9 to 200 miles off the Texas coast where the 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. Gov. Rick Perry and a Texas congressman, Blake Farenthold, have asked the Interior Department to re-evaluate the removal rules, as has a coalition of seven recreational angling organizations, including the Coastal Conservation Association. The coalition is supporting legislation to require more thorough review of platform removal.