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Shipwrecks Tell Deep Reef Tales

Gulf Ecosystem Studied

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 2001 EXPLORER)

Together, 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.

The $1.2 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.

Using rigs 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.

The question is, can man-made reefs in the deepwater Gulf be effective?

Fagot said that scientists expect to issue a full report in a year — but until then, video and daily updates will be available online.

(It should 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.)

Image Caption

The SS Robert E. Lee met a tragic fate in the deepwater region of the Gulf of Mexico during World War II, sunk by a German U-boat that itself was later destroyed and now rests about a mile away. The two boats are the subjects of a collaborative study to assess the environmental impact that drilling in deep water may have on marine life.
Photo courtesy of the Minerals Management Service

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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 2001 EXPLORER)

Together, 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.

The $1.2 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.

Using rigs 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.

The question is, can man-made reefs in the deepwater Gulf be effective?

Fagot said that scientists expect to issue a full report in a year — but until then, video and daily updates will be available online.

(It should 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.)

"The wrecks 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 a mystery.

And since 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.

Deepwater Debates

The MMS, 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.

It's only been in recent years that the question of the effectiveness of rigs as reefs in the deepwater Gulf was even considered.

The excitement 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.

Still, 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.

According 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."

Industry watchers, like the Business Communications Group, counter by saying that by 2006, the overall global market for deep water will reach $100 billion.

For its 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.

Though 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.

(Studies 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.)

So far, the MMS has approved no such system for the Gulf.

Answers May Surface

For the 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 per day.

While not 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 those ecosystems.

"The wrecks will provide us with some of those answers," she said.

Fagot promises 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.

"Industry cannot impact the shipwrecks," she said.

Not surprisingly, 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.

"Nobody 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.

"MMS regulations 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.

"The German 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.

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