The Evolution of California Rigs-to-Reefs
More than 30 years ago, the National Fishing Enforcement Act empowered the Minerals Management service to create the National Artificial Reef Plan. The plan laid the groundwork for creation of marine habitat using a wide range of manmade materials, including the massive steel structures of decommissioned offshore oil and gas platforms scrapped at the end of their productive lives. Many ocean researchers knew the rigs already had become thriving ecosystems supporting, protecting and regenerating untold millions of sea creatures.
By the late 1990s, Gulf Coast states like Texas and Louisiana enacted “rigs to reefs” legislation that kick started the process of converting platforms to reefs, lopping them off well below the surface of the gulf and repositioning the frameworks on the sea floor to create thriving reefs. The states converted nearly 200 rigs by 2014.
But what about California, home to 27 platforms off its central and south coast, many of which also are approaching the end of productivity? Many California political, business, ocean science and recreational fishing industry leaders first embraced the idea of rigs to reefs legislation at about the same time as some of the Gulf Coast states but it took more than a decade to get there.
In 1999, State Senator Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Barbara) introduced Senate Bill 2173 to initiate rig conversions for conservation purposes and to enhance commercial and recreational fishing. The measure, viewed by many as premature, did not have enough support and died in committee. In January 2000, rigs-to-reefs supporter Senator Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) tried to resurrect SB 2173 but it again failed to generate support and died three months later.
Sen. Alpert then introduced SB 241, a more robust measure that incorporated some SB 2173 provisions but expanded significantly to focus on technical feasibility, potential environmental benefits and impacts, and important budget and policy considerations. It established the Department of Fish and Game as the primary state agency — working cooperatively with other agencies — overseeing the artificial reef program. It also created an independent “Blue Ribbon Committee” of experts to evaluate environmental concerns. While Alpert worked to build support, the 2000 legislative session ended with no action on SB 241.
In 2001, Alpert reintroduced her legislation, this time as Senate Bill 1. Adjustments to the language of the previous bill, coupled with much stronger support from a variety of groups and organizations, were enough to move the measure through both houses of the legislature and onto the desk of then-Governor Gray Davis. Under pressure from environmental groups, Davis vetoed SB 1 with the message that there was insufficient scientific evidence that the converted rigs would be environmentally beneficial.
It took nearly a decade for rigs-to-reefs to resurface in the State Legislature. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast states reefed scores of decommissioned rigs and comprehensive new scientific studies showed California’s platforms not only housed tens of millions of sea creatures but also served as protected, productive nurseries for a number of endangered fish species.
In February 2010, Assemblyman John Perez (D-Los Angeles) introduced Assembly Bill 2503. His legislation adopted ideas from the previous bills but added a range of new provisions addressing concerns and shortcomings that prevented enactment of SB 1. AB 2503 focused on the importance of preserving the diversity and abundance of marine life in California coastal waters. It also expanded the scope of requirements for platform operators to share savings from partial rather than full rig removal with the state for marine conservation programs. In addition, it expanded language related to specific state agency responsibilities in a case-by-case review and approval process.
AB 2503 passed both houses by significant margins. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law on Sept. 15, 2010 as the California Marine Resources Legacy Act.