Deep in the
Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast, the German U-Boat 166 lay
buried in irony, split in half by depth charges, about a mile from
the American freighter, the SS Robert E. Lee -- the same Robert
E. Lee torpedoed by the German sub a few days earlier. (October
the sites of these two vessels in 5,000 feet of water, along with
five other shipwrecks in the Gulf (all of which occurred between
1942 and 1943), are the focal point of a Deepwater Shipwreck Study,
a collaborative effort to assess the environmental impact of drilling
in deep water, specifically its effects on plant and marine life
and the artificial reefs that may form.
million, 18-day study (it started in late July), funded by the Minerals
Management Service and a consortium of universities, governmental
agencies and oil and gas explorers, was "the most comprehensive
ever done," said Caryl Fagot, public affairs specialist for MMS.
as artificial habitats for marine life is nothing new. The federal
government has worked with coastal states and oil companies since
the early 1980s to convert drilling platforms into artificial reefs
once the rigs are removed. More than 200 rigs-to-reefs projects
can be found in the Gulf's shallower waters.
is, can man-made reefs in the deepwater Gulf be effective?
that scientists expect to issue a full report in a year -- but until
then, video and daily updates will be available online.
be noted that researchers from Texas A&M University, the University
of Texas, Louisiana State University and other schools are in the
midst of a similar four-year, $4.8-million study.)
are serving as laboratories," Fagot said, adding that while the
oil and gas industry has plenty of information on drilling and man-made
reefs in shallow water, deepwater ecosystems remains something of
deepwater activity has become the dominant exploration target in
the Gulf, knowing more about the overall environment is more than
just a luxury. For many, it's a necessity.
a bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the federal
agency that manages the nation's natural gas, oil and other mineral
resources on the outer continental shelf. The agency also collects,
accounts for and distributes more than $5 billion per year in revenues
from federal offshore mineral leases.
been in recent years that the question of the effectiveness of rigs
as reefs in the deepwater Gulf was even considered.
over deepwater drilling first heated up in 1987 when Shell Oil discovered
a deepwater field in the Gulf with reserves of some 220 million
barrels of oil (see related story, page 6). The potential for large-scale
success, obviously, was compelling.
with oil and gas prices depressed throughout the 1990s, deepwater
development was slow to develop. Then, in 1995, the federal Deep
Water Royalty Relief Act, a controversial piece of legislation that
offered oil companies royalty-free production on the first 12 million
barrels, was passed.
to the Sierra Club, that legislation did more harm than good. In
its June report, it concluded, "Offshore oil and gas revenues are
diminishing, and are continually eroded by royalty relief for deepwater
drilling and other new and expensive drilling techniques."
watchers, like the Business Communications Group, counter by saying
that by 2006, the overall global market for deep water will reach
part, the EPA says that as of 2001, more than 3,900 leases, or 52
percent of the total active leases in the Gulf, were in areas that
require deepwater drilling and development. Water more than 1,000
feet deep is considered deep water, and almost 3,000 of the active
leases involve water over 3,000 feet deep.
environmentalists were not mollified, the MMS, in a 2001 (#2001-11)
study, found that only two chemicals involved in deepwater drilling
and production, zinc bromide and ammonium chloride, had the potential
for adverse environmental impact.
continue, however, on storage and offloading systems, large tanker
type vessels that would process and store oil from nearby wells
moored to the sea floor.)
the MMS has approved no such system for the Gulf.
oil and gas industry, there are other obstacles, most notably the
cost of implementing and maintaining high specification rigs needed
for deepwater drilling that are capable of maintaining station and
suppressing vortex induced vibration -- costs that can exceed $300,000
dismissing the historical, archaeological, economic and ethical
considerations, Fagot underscores that the main focus of this latest
study will be "the impact that deep water and microbes are having
on the structures" and the concurrent impact of the structures on
will provide us with some of those answers," she said.
that the sites will not be disturbed, and that the inspection will
be non-invasive, as a Remote Operated Vehicle will be used to determine
the marine habitat around them.
cannot impact the shipwrecks," she said.
she added, whatever the final results of the study, the oil and
gas industry will be sensitive to the environmental impact of drilling
in any water depth.
would know the true location of the U-166," she said, by way of
proof, "if not for oil and gas exploration," alluding to its discovery
by BP Amoco and Shell while the companies were surveying the area
for a planned underwater pipeline from the Mississippi River.
require companies to leave the sea floor the way they found it,"
she said, adding that the pipeline, in fact, was redirected away
from the wrecked U-166 once it was discovered.
government still has jurisdiction over the U-166, because it's a
grave site," she said -- a site that may be surrounded by man-made
reefs, and the nautical ghosts of its own 52 buried crewmen.