Oil companies and environmental groups may spar over off-shore drilling, but there's one thing they can agree on: Leaving scuttled rigs on the ocean floor creates a rich environment for coral, endangered species and other marine life.
The Gulf of Mexico – home to approximately 3,600 offshore oil and gas platforms – is set to lose a third of those structures in the next five years, which many claim will destroy almost 2,000 acres of coral reef habitat and the seven billion invertebrates that thrive on or near the platforms.
Such organisms include federally protected species, like scleractinian corals, octocorals, hydrozoans and gorgonians.
Despite an unlikely consensus that the decommissioned rigs create prolific ecosystems, a law enacted more than 30 years ago requires that many of these platforms be ripped from the ocean floor – in turn destroying a habitat used by countless organisms for feeding, spawning, mating and maturation.
Pressure to remove the old rigs comes on two fronts. A 1970s federal law, enacted before the benefits of leaving them on the ocean floor were understood, called for companies to remove them.
Though still in effect, subsequent state rulings that cited the boon to marine life that the rigs can provide conflicted with it. The older law was not strictly enforced until the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which left hundreds of rigs damaged and unusable.
Even then, it appears to be in conflict with state laws, federal programs and even scientific consensus.
Oil companies also find it in their interest to remove some of the rigs – despite the estimated cost of $3 million – because they can be held liable in perpetuity for navigational hazards caused by the sunken wreckage.