Rigs-to-reefs is closer than ever to reality.
That’s because the State Legislature has approved a bill that would let certain offshore oil platforms remain partially in place once they’re decommissioned. The bill, AB 2503, which was authored by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, sailed through the statehouse; the State Senate voted 31-1 in favor last week, and then the Assembly approved it on Tuesday 68-2, with Santa Barbara’s Assemblymember Pedro Nava voting against the bill. It now sits on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk, awaiting his signature.
The bill would let the state take over the rigs once the oil companies lop off the top 85 feet for navigational safety purposes and also set up a conservation fund where the companies would donate a percentage of the associated savings; full removal of all rigs is estimated to cost more than $1 billion, but partial removal could save more than $650 million. Each rig would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and the program would only be implemented if leaving a particular platform in place results in a “net environmental benefit” and “substantial cost savings.” Some rigs are expected to be ready for decommissioning as soon as 2015, with the majority coming due by 2030.
Similar programs run by the federal Minerals Management Service in conjunction with the states of Louisiana and Texas have been welcomed with mostly open arms in the Gulf Coast since the mid 1980s, except for complaints from the shrimpers and trawling fishermen whose nets can snag on the underwater debris. But the Gulf of Mexico’s sandy bottom is particularly lacking in reef-like fish habitat, so the dozens of old, repurposed rigs — which include both abandoned deepwater platforms and, more commonly, rigs that have been taken apart and relocated to an official reef zone — have become havens for recreational fishermen and SCUBA divers.
But in Santa Barbara, the idea is still met with uncertainty. The Environmental Defense Center’s Linda Krop, who has fought the Rigs-to-Reefs legislation before and also participated in full rig removals in the mid 1990s, says the purpose is to save money for the state and for the oil rig owners. “Do we want to clean up the ocean or do we want the money in exchange for allowing these platforms, which are surrounded by huge piles of contaminated debris, to remain in place?” she asked recently, while she watched the bill move through the statehouse. “Are we going to set a precedent that other industries can use the ocean as their dumping ground as well, especially if they give their money to the state?”
Krop and like-minded critics argue that the reef-lined ocean floor off of California already supports enough fish habitat; that the rigs are much more problematically immense that most of the ones in the Gulf (almost 30 percent, in fact, are deeper than 400 feet, and one is taller than the Empire State Building at nearly 1,200 feet, making for the largest proposed rig removals ever); and that the potential liabilities for future rig-related accidents — whether happening to divers or commercial fishermen, who fear a snag could capsize their vessels — are still too nebulous and dangerous for the state to assume.
But many scientists think otherwise, including UCSB’s Milton Love, who’s spent the past 15 years driving his submarine beneath these very rigs to determine whether fish indeed like to call them home. His data shows that each rig is “quite different” but that the platforms tend to be adding to the overall fish population, especially for economically important species such as rockfish. “That’s not because anyone has sprinkled magic pixie dust on them,” said Love a few weeks ago. “It’s because they are extremely large structures, so that when young fishes are drifting around, they encounter platforms more easily than they would encounter a natural reef.”
The bill is also beloved by recreational fishermen like Tom Raftican, president of The Sportfishing Conservancy. “AB 2503 does an incredible job of providing habitat for a number of California’s at-risk fish populations and at the same time will provide an awesome marine legacy for the governor and legislators,” he said on Thursday. “This bill will create an endowment to help fund the management and enhancement that our marine resources desperately need.”
The bill’s author John Pérez, from Los Angeles, has said that the bill represents a “creative approach that protects our marine habitats while generating a permanent new funding course for environmental protection and regulation.” Citing “an enormous body of science” showing the reefs are actually good and not bad for the environment, saying they create “sustainable economic opportunities for coastal communities,” and lauding the establishment of a new state conservation fund, Pérez has argued, “[It’s] a winning prospect for our entire state.”