SANTA BARBARA, Calif. Marine biologist Milton Love drives a hybrid car, displays a banner of left-wing 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 whether it will be years or decades 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 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, according to Love. Some fisheries have closed, and the fishing fleet has shrunk by a third.
Love, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, films fish from a submarine and then counts them in his lab. He says some platforms are surrounded with fish packed as tightly as "cocktail wieners in a can."
"If anyone wants to come up and count the fish, we'll provide the first beer," Love says. "But they're going to have to bring the rest. And they're going to need a few cases because we have 11 years of research."
Love gets about 80 percent of his research money from the government and the rest from the California Artificial Reef Enhancement Program, a nonprofit group funded almost entirely by oil companies. It has contributed about $100,000 a year to Love's research since 1999, executive director George Steinbach says.
Love says no amount of oil money can sway his research fish either cluster at the platforms or they don't. And because they do, he says his personal opinion is that the rigs should stay in place, cut below the waterline so that ships can pass safely over them.
"If you remove a platform you'll kill many millions of animals," he says.
Environmentalists say if the platforms were removed, fish would return to the underwater boulder fields and rocky outcroppings that form natural reefs along the Southern California coast.
In the Gulf of Mexico, more than 200 rigs have been converted into artificial reefs, either by toppling them or by lopping them off.
Krop, the environmental lawyer, says rig-to-reef conversions make more sense in the Gulf of Mexico because the waters there have a mud bottom and fewer natural reefs.
Converting platforms between Long Beach and Point Conception north of Santa Barbara could be $600 million to $1 billion cheaper than removing them, Steinbach says. He says the oil companies would contribute up to half their savings to state conservation programs.
Widespread opposition from environmentalists and residents has killed legislation that would have allowed such a deal.