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Oil Platforms Fuel Fish Farms
Oil Pipeline in Whale Territory
Mineral of the Month: Rhenium


Oil Platforms Fuel Fish Farms

In its hefty report on the state of the oceans and federal ocean policies, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy suggested setting a course for using the oceans to farm fish, not just catch them. The Bush administration seized upon this notion, calling for a sustainable plan to increase mariculture — offshore marine fish farming. One option is to use the thousands of oil and natural gas platforms that line the nation’s coasts as staging areas for the farms. Although fish farming in federal waters is not yet a commercial reality, many in industry and government are forging ahead with mariculture plans.

Net pens (in the foreground) established around oil platforms, such as this one in the Gulf of Mexico, can hold up to 150,000 pounds of fish. New energy is being put into the effort to convert oil and natural gas platforms into staging areas for fish farming. Courtesy of NOAA.

A primary driver for the push toward mariculture is increased consumption of fish in the United States, says Michael Rubino, aquaculture program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We already import close to 70 percent of our seafood,” he says, with U.S. imports accounting for $7 billion annually in trade deficits, a number that is projected to rise.

“We’ve already wiped out the major stocks of big fish in the ocean and are beginning to deplete the smaller-sized stocks as well,” says Paul Sammarco with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, which conducts marine research and education activities in Louisiana. Other countries, such as Japan, are building platforms offshore specifically for mariculture, he says. The United States already has the highest density of offshore platforms, which are much more substantial in structure and of much higher value, he says, “so why not put them to new use?”

The majority of U.S. offshore oil and gas platforms are in the Gulf of Mexico, where 3,600 platforms are scattered up to several hundred miles offshore. Most of the platforms are currently active. Under current legislation, once a company stops producing oil or gas from a platform, they have about a year to decommission and remove it, Sammarco says. It costs oil companies anywhere from $2 million to $30 million to decommission and remove platforms, says Granvil Treece with NOAA’s Sea Grant program in Texas, depending on a platform’s size and distance from shore. It would cost significantly less, he says, to leave the platforms in place even if they are decommissioned.

Removing the platforms would also represent a loss of reef communities that have developed on and around these artificial reefs, Sammarco says. The Gulf of Mexico alone contains 3,600 thriving platform reef systems. “By volume, these are the most productive ecosystems on the planet.” Turning the platforms into home bases for fishing would save the oil companies money, while preserving the ecosystems, Sammarco says.

Like offshore oil workers, fish farmers could sleep on the platforms, and food and equipment for the fish farms could be stored onboard, says James McVey, aquaculture program manager for the National Sea Grant College Program. The platforms also could be used as hatcheries, he says. The average-sized platform could support at least four 3,000-cubic-meter net pens, which can each contain 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of fish.

Mariculture is already a reality in state waters, where permitting processes are in place, McVey says. Fish are commercially grown in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and New Hampshire, for example — though not using oil platforms as bases. Where fish are currently farmed, scientists have been studying environmental impacts, including monitoring the waters above, below and 100 meters away from a net, and checking the sediments on the seafloor below for fecal contaminants and nutrient levels. Their research has shown that as long as fish farms are sited properly, contaminants do not cause significant environmental change.

But environmental groups have concerns about the long-term effects of large-scale mariculture. With regard to oil-platform use, for example, Catherine Hazlewood of The Ocean Conservancy points to pollutants such as barite that are associated with oil rigs. She says that unless the oil companies are required to decommission the rigs as current law dictates, these toxins will remain in the water. Current legislative proposals do not force the oil companies to decommission the platforms or restore the surrounding ecosystems, they simply release liability for the oil company and transfer ownership to a new owner or user. Other concerns relate to mariculture as a whole, such as the possibility of disease or parasites spreading from farmed fish to natural fish.

But McVey says that “we have enough information to provide best management practices for mariculture.” Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service has already developed a code of conduct for responsible fish farming, as has the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

NOAA is working on a bill to set up a regulatory process to allow mariculture options to move forward, Rubino says. The president hopes to send a mariculture bill to Congress sometime this year.

Megan Sever

Links:
NOAA Fisheries
NOAA Sea Grant
Rigs-to-Reef
Committee on Ocean Policy
The Ocean Conservancy


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Oil Pipeline in Whale Territory

On March 30, Royal Dutch/Shell announced that the company would reroute an oil and gas pipeline they were building for developing an oil field off the Russian island of Sakhalin, after receiving pressure from environmental groups. Where they had originally planned to route the pipeline ran too close to feeding grounds of the endangered western gray whale, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

According to the Associated Press, Shell said it had stopped laying the pipeline in April 2004, following its own research that showed the pipeline could harm the whales. The company is awaiting approval from the Russian government for a new pipeline route.

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Mineral of the Month: Rhenium

Michael J. Magyar, the rhenium commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, has compiled the following information on rhenium, a rare metal used in turbine blades and catalysts.

Rhenium, an exotic, heat-resistant metal, has grown in importance since its discovery nearly 80 years ago. First isolated by a team of German chemists studying a platinum ore, the mineral was named for the Rhine River. From then until the 1960s, only 2 metric tons of rhenium were produced worldwide. In 2004, worldwide production was 40 metric tons.

Its high melting point (3,180 degrees Celsius) and heat-stable crystalline structure make rhenium an excellent refractory metal. Metallurgical applications are now the single biggest market for rhenium (about 60 percent).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rhenium was used in rocket thrusters, which reach temperatures of up to 2,230 degrees Celsius. Other early uses included filament wires in mass spectrographs and flashbulbs, and anodes of X-ray machines and thermocouples. In the early 1970s, Chevron Corp. developed a series of platinum-rhenium catalysts that would not react with sulfur to assist in the production of lead-free gasoline at oil refineries. As a response to the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s and early 1980s, a second generation of more efficient catalysts was developed with double the platinum-rhenium content, boosting refinery efficiency and octane levels.

Since the late 1980s, rhenium’s main use has been in nickel-base superalloys to make single-crystal turbine blades. The rhenium allows turbine engines to be designed with closer tolerances for increased thrust and high operating efficiency. Jet-engine turbines now account for 45 percent of U.S. consumption of rhenium. Increased rhenium consumption is forecast for the next generation of fighter jets, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike fighter, as well as in new gas-fired turbines for power generation.

Rhenium is one of the rarest and most dispersed metallic elements in Earth’s crust, with abundance estimated to be about 1 part per billion. Although traces of rhenium occur in some minerals, molybdenite is the only significant host mineral.

Most of the world’s reserves of rhenium are found in the Western Cordillera of North America and South America, extending from Alaska and British Columbia through the United States and Central America to the Andes Mountains of Peru and Chile. Other rhenium-bearing sedimentary copper deposits are located in Kazakhstan and neighboring countries. Chile and the United States possess about 75 percent of the world’s reserve base of rhenium.

Chile, Kazakhstan and the United States (in descending order) provided most of the world’s production of rhenium in 2004. Molibdenos y Metales (Molymet), a private company in Santiago, Chile, produces about half of worldwide production. Molymet processes concentrates from mines in Chile and Peru, but does not own any mines.

The United States’ share of world production in 2004 was 12 percent, about the same as in 2003; however, the United States presently consumes about 75 percent of world’s rhenium production.

Visit minerals.usgs.gov/minerals for more information on rhenium.

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