Research group sues to keep Texas from dismantling platform

Gulf Marine Institute of Technology, a nonprofit research group, went to court Thursday to stop the Texas General Land Office (GLO) from dismantling a former oil and gas production platform complex in the Gulf of Mexico that the institute hopes to convert into the first offshore fish farm in US waters. Institute officials claim the project was approved 2 years ago by former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. But current state officials say an official agreement was never signed.


Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

Gulf Marine Institute of Technology, a nonprofit research group, went to court Thursday to stop the Texas General Land Office (GLO) from dismantling a former oil and gas production platform complex in the Gulf of Mexico that the institute hopes to convert into the first offshore fish farm in US waters.

"This is a unique situation. We spent 5 years searching for just the right platform and 2 years getting all of the necessary permits. We're not going to walk away from this," said an angry John Ericsson, president of the Florida-based research group, in a telephone interview with OGJ Online. He was in Bay City, Tex., for a hearing late Thursday on an injunction against Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst to prevent destruction of the offshore facility. At that hearing, GLO officials volunteered to take no action pending trial of that case on Sept. 7.

What's at issue
Ericsson claims his project was approved in 1998 by Dewhurst's predecessor, former Commissioner Garry Mauro, after Gulf Marine Institute posted a $2.6 million bond to guarantee eventual removal of the platform. That's considerably more than similar bonds required of offshore oil and gas operators in Texas waters, he said. But in May 1999, he said, GLO officials under Dewhurst "suddenly notified us that they had changed their minds and were denying us the use of the platform."

A GLO spokesman said the institute's proposal was rejected because state officials aren't convinced it would be a commercial success. However, he couldn't explain why the potential commercial viability of that project is more important than that of an unexplored offshore oil or gas lease, where the state collects an operator's bonus bid and lets him run his own financial risk on the outcome.

More important, GLO officials claim, no formal agreement for the project was ever signed. "There's nothing on paper," the spokesman said.

Dropped ball
In an affidavit filed in support of Gulf Marine Institute, Mauro said he approved reassignment of the offshore lease and platform complex for use as a mariculture research and development project. However, he said his staff apparently failed to draw up a surface lease agreement for the project, as directed.

Mauro, who also served on the state Aquaculture Executive Committee, said he then was distracted by his unsuccessful campaign for governor and was surprised to learn much later that the agreement had not been completed as ordered.

In October, GLO officials notified the institute that the former lease had terminated in early July with the plugging of its wells. Institute officials were ordered to dismantle the platform within 120 days of the July date.

That deadline was extended during negotiations between institute and state officials. But GLO officials rebuffed the institute's offers, including a proposed payment to the state of $10,000/year, compared with the $15,000/year formerly collected from the oil and gas lease, Ericsson said.

He said GLO officials then imposed a new deadline of May 26 for the institute either to remove the platform or forfeit its $2.6 million bond.

Platform uses
The connected 3-platform complex, located in state waters on Block 526-L off Matagorda Island, was formerly operated by Houston-based Seagull Energy E&P Inc., which transferred that facility to the Florida-based Gulf Marine Institute in 1998, along with a $1.3 million contribution to its research on fish farming. However, Ericsson said his lawyers also had to include Seagull Energy as a defendant in the suit.

Over the years, many old offshore platforms have been dumped off Texas and in other waters to create artificial reef habitats for fish. But this is the first attempt to convert a platform to other use, by incubating fish aboard the facility and raising them to market-size in submerged cages on a 500-acre site. Institute officials claim that could grow into a $17.5 million business within 5 years.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has already approved the marine site for that purpose, in an area that has previously been overfished for some commercial species. Gulf Marine Institute officials plan eventually to put 30 underwater cages on that location, with some 250,000 food fish in each cage.

Meanwhile, the Texas Sea Grant Program at Texas A&M University is pursuing another fish farm project using floating cages in gulf waters off Mississippi. Officials with that experimental program also would like to install fish cages adjacent to offshore oil and gas platforms in the gulf, where they would be easier for scientists to monitor.

Sea Grant officials note that, of the $6.5 billion worth of fish and shellfish consumed annually in the US, 60% is imported and only 6% is produced by acquaculture, so far. They see it as a potentially lucrative new business for the US Gulf Coast.

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