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New Bill Would Allow Controversial Rigs to Reef Program; Don’t Let Oil Companies Off the Hook for Clean Up Costs

Sept. 28, 2005

New Bill Would Allow Controversial Rigs to Reef Program; Don’t Let Oil Companies Off the Hook for Clean Up Costs

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director, Food Program

With little notice and no scheduled public hearings, a new bill being pushed through Congress would allow oil companies to avoid dismantling defunct oil rigs by permitting them to be sold to companies that want to build fish farms in the open ocean.

The “National Energy Supply Diversification and Disruption Prevention Act,” introduced Sept. 26 by U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), is being pushed quickly through the legislative process in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. Within it is a problematic section that would authorize decommissioned oil rigs to be converted to offshore fish farms, anywhere from three to 200 miles from the coast. This would enable oil companies to avoid the current legal requirements that the rigs must be removed from the ocean one year after oil and gas leases terminate. Commonly called the Rigs to Reef program, the proposal has been controversial for years and was dropped from a fish farming bill introduced in June. Now it has resurfaced, tucked into a bill scheduled for mark-up today in the U.S. House Committee on Resources.

Dismantling oil rigs is an expensive undertaking; the National Research Council estimates that it will cost $9.9 billion from 1985-2020 to remove decommissioned oil rigs. Now, as the nation faces massive clean-up costs in the Gulf region after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, oil companies are attempting to defer costs without consideration of environmental consequences. Oil companies are already making record profits – $254 billion in profits since 2001 – at a time when consumers are paying record-high prices at the gas pump.

Of great concern is the prospect of large-scale commercial fish farms being established in federal waters. Offshore aquaculture involves the raising of carnivorous finfish, such as cod, halibut and red snapper, in often large, crowded cages where fish waste and chemicals flush into the open ocean. These farms can introduce escaped non-native fish species that compete with and spread disease to wild-fish populations.   Damage to the farms from storms is one of the primary ways that farm-raised fish can   escape. For example, in the late 1990s, storms destroyed an offshore aquaculture test-cage placed adjacent to an oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the escape of the farmed fish.

It is bad policy, given the damage caused by recent storms, to allow oil and gas rigs to remain in the Gulf of Mexico even after these rigs are finished producing oil. It seems equally unwise to convert these structures into aquaculture facilities that raise hundreds of thousands of fish that can escape and cause extensive damage to the ecosystem.   We hope Congress rejects this marriage of two environmentally dubious schemes backed by the energy and ocean aquaculture industries.