Petroleum and gas companies have drilled and extracted natural resources from the sea floor for decades with the use of deep- and shallow-water platforms known as rigs or derricks. Off the California coast there are 27 platforms, 19 of which are located in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Before they were built, oil companies agreed to finance and execute the complete removal of the rigs when they finished drilling. The agreement also mandated that companies return the ocean floor to its original condition after drilling.

Convention may change if Governor Gray Davis signs Senate Bill 1 on October 14. SB-1 – authored by State Senator Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) and sponsored by Chevron USA and the United Anglers of Southern California – would allow oil companies to lop off the top of a rig, instead of paying for its underwater removal. In exchange, the state assumes liability for the underwater structure, which acts as a de facto reef for many species.

The bill also allows oil companies to donate a portion of a rig’s decommissioning cost to the California Endowment for Marine Preservation, a state-run program, but does not specify an amount.

Under SB-1, oil companies would retain liability for oil spills even after the rig is converted to a reef, but be absolved of their responsibility for any long-term environmental damage. Oil spills are unlikely, according to Mark Miertschin, regional spokesperson for Nuevo Energy, a Texas-based company that owns 12 of the 27 platforms on the California coast.

“[When we convert the rigs] the platform facilities are hauled off, cement plugs are inserted in the pipe, the sea pipe is cut off under the sea floor and the top 80 feet of the underwater structure is cut off,” Miertschin said. “We own mostly shallow-water rigs, which cost much less than deep-water rigs to decommission. It costs about $10 to $15 million to decommission a shallow-water rig, and it increases significantly the deeper the water. I am assuming that about 50 percent of the decommissioning cost would go to the state, and that figure would increase the deeper the water.”

The bill has powerful opponents, including Assemblymember Hannah Beth Jackson (D-35th District), who said it unfairly transfers responsibility for potential risks to the state. Twenty-five major environmental agencies also oppose the bill, including the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, Ocean Conservancy and CalPIRG.

“There are no positives with a great financial risk [to the state],” Jackson said. “Not to mention the maintenance costs. There are pollutants such as PCB’s and hydrocarbons under the mounds of shells at the base of the structures, and upon examination it was found that one or more of the shell mounds are leaking into the water column. It is the worst environmental bill of the year.”

The rigs-to-reefs program was first seen in 1986 in Louisiana and in 1989 in Texas and Mississippi. The program was started in the Gulf of Mexico because of the lack of sufficiently durable habitats for many species.

“Hard-bottomed structures off the Texas coast are limited – it’s mostly sand and mud,” Artificial Reefs Program Director Hal Osburn said.

UCSB Marine Science Institute research has found huge amounts of marine life, including tens of thousands of fish and shellfish, and some species that are rarely found on natural reefs.

However, the long-term effects of artificial reefs on underwater habitats and the Pacific Ocean floor have not been established, Jackson said.

“SB-1 is financially irresponsible … a black hole of liability,” she said. “It operates on a faulty premise, which is that leaving the rigs will increase the habitat for wildlife. There was a study conducted out of the Marine Science Institute, which found no reasons to believe habitat would be enhanced.”

The fishing industry is split on the issue. Commercial fishermen including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Southern California Trawlers Association, and the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fisherman’s Association all rely primarily on towing a net for hours.

“The biggest concern is the trawlers getting caught on the underwater structures. My personal concern is what guarantee do we have if something goes wrong [environmentally]?” said Dan Salter, PCFFA board of directors chair and president of the SBCSFA.

Recreational fishermen, like the United Anglers of Southern California, see rigs-to-reefs as an opportunity to create large fishery stocks, as it has in areas like Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

Tom Raftican from the United Anglers said the bill would protect two industries by boosting fishing opportunities while cutting costs for oil companies.

“Millions of pounds of invertebrates, tons of marine life – and oil companies maintain oil spill liability. This is a no-brainer,” Raftican said. “SB-1 says that each [rig] is looked at individually for this kind of decommissioning … and even if explosives are used it would [cost] much less than removing the rigs.”