By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - In an ironic twist, scientists, fishermen and conservationists are urging that hundreds of dormant oil rigs be left standing in the Gulf of Mexico, arguing that a federal plan to remove them will endanger coral reefs and fish.
While environmentalists might more typically be expected to oppose artificial intrusions in the marine habitat, those seeking a halt to the removal want time to study the impact of rig destruction on the Gulf Coast's economy and to catalog the species, some rare and endangered, that are clinging to the sunken metal.
"I am not supporting oil rigs. I am supporting fish habitat that just happens to on petroleum platforms," said Bob Shipp, chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama.
U.S. Department of Interior officials say the federal "idle iron" policy, updated in 2010, makes good sense after storms during the 2005 hurricane season toppled 150 defunct oil rigs, causing considerable damage.
If defunct rigs are toppled by storms, they can break loose and hit other rigs - potentially causing an oil spill - be swept to land and destroy a dock or a bridge, knock into and damage natural reefs and cause problems with ship navigation.
"Cleaning up afterwards is a lot more expensive and inefficient," said David Smith, spokesman for the department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Federal law has long required the removal of drilling infrastructure no longer in use, but a 2010 agency notice asked operators to detail plans for 650 dormant oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and 3,500 inactive wells.
Companies have to demonstrate the infrastructure will be put to use eventually or offer a plan to move ahead with decommissioning, the agency said.
The structures have attracted as many as 3 acres of coral habitat per rig, and some 30,000 fish live off of each reef, according to Shipp.
"They developed into an oasis for reef fishes," said Shipp, a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Shipp said the updated "idle iron" policy is driving the destruction of old rigs at the rate of three per week, prompting new concerns about the fate of the wildlife and the thousands of jobs that depend on the reef fish.
Diving, sports fishing, restaurants, charter boats and hotels all thrive on the Gulf of Mexico's $1 billion fishing industry, according to U.S. Representative Steven Palazzo of Mississippi.
If the rig dismantling continues, Shipp fears as much as a 50 percent decline in fishery production, which he worries would further devastate an area still recovering from the BP oil spill in 2010. "I have never seen rigs come down this fast in 30 years of study," he said.
The Interior Department disputed claims that there has been a rapid rise in rig removals since 2010, though the department could not provide historical data.
As of late August, some 227 platforms were scheduled to be taken down in the Gulf of Mexico through the end of 2013, with 116 slated for disposal, 35 for reef conversion and 76 still awaiting decommissioning plans, the department said. About 3,000 platforms were in the Gulf as of July.
Still, members of the Coastal Conservation Association have described sailing out to favorite fishing holes only to find dead zones after rig removal, according to Ted Venker, the group's conservation director.
Trade groups representing oil rig operators have not taken an active stance on the issue. The Independent Petroleum Association of America said it understands environmental concerns but the potential liabilities posed by idle rigs must also be considered.
Republican congressman Palazzo has sponsored a "Rigs to Reefs" bill in the House of Representatives that calls for a moratorium on rig destruction until studies can show the impact on fishing and the economy.
Under the legislation, 50 percent of the removal cost would be put back into maintenance of the structures, such as keeping foghorns and night lights working.
"People come from all over the world to fish our waters, and they spend a lot of money while they are here," Palazzo said. "We want to protect the oil industry, the ecosystem and our way of life."
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)