- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Marine biologist Milton Love drives a hybrid car, displays a banner of revolutionary Che Guevara on his laboratory wall — and has backing from Big Oil.

The reason: his finding that oil platforms off California’s central coast are a haven for species of fish, whose numbers have been dramatically reduced by overfishing.

That is good news to oil executives, who are looking for reasons not to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the platforms once the crude stops flowing.

Environmentalists say oil companies are simply trying to escape their obligations.

“Just because fish are there doesn’t mean the platform constitutes habitat,” says Linda Krop, an attorney for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. “That’s like taking a picture of birds on a telephone wire and saying it’s essential habitat.”

The 27 platforms — skeletal-looking structures that house dormitories, offices and massive pumps — were installed over the past four decades and now produce 72,000 barrels of oil a day. Environmentalists and coastal residents despise them for spoiling the view and disrupting the ocean’s ecology.

Federal law requires oil companies to remove the platforms when operations are complete, though no one knows how long it will be before the deposits under the sea floor run out.

Oil companies already are pressing state and federal officials to keep the rigs in place, citing Mr. Love’s finding that platforms provide homes for bocaccio, cowcod and other fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week it might consider the idea but wants to know more about the effects of oil platforms on marine life.

Since the 1950s, when heavy fishing began in the region, some species of fish have been reduced to 6 percent of their previous numbers, Mr. Love says.

Mr. Love, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says some platforms are surrounded with fish packed as tightly as “cocktail wieners in a can.”

“If you remove a platform you’ll kill many millions of animals,” he says.

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