For decades, 27 oil rigs have been as much a part of the Southern California coastal view as sailboats and surfers. These massive structures are now approaching the end of their productive lives. This presents a unique opportunity for us to enact new policies that preserve and enhance the valuable marine life habitat that has been created by these platforms, generate significant new funding for ocean conservation, restore an unobstructed view of our shoreline vistas and ultimately bring an end to offshore oil production in our state.

Over the years, hundreds of millions of sea creatures made their homes on and around the support beams, casings and pipes in the waters beneath the rigs. After years of intense scientific evaluation, virtually all peer-reviewed studies have determined that the immense size and vertical profile of the platforms are ideal foundations for thriving artificial reefs. They provide breeding, rearing and refuge habitat for fish and invertebrates, including 32 out of 52 federally regulated rockfish species.

Biological surveys conducted in Southern California also found that the platforms tend to have more abundant large fish than most natural reefs. Many of the fish present at the rigs are declining in number throughout the rest of the coast. Many are economically important species. All are of value to the web of life in our ocean ecosystem.

As it stands today, decommissioning these rigs in the normal fashion most likely would involve explosive demolition, removal and landfill disposal of the platforms. Unfortunately, all or most of the marine life that encrusts and surrounds them also would be destroyed in this process.

Assembly Bill 2503 by Speaker John Perez would dramatically change this scenario by creating a new program called California Rigs-to-Reefs. This would enable the subsurface portion of platforms, and the amazing marine habitat they support, to be left in place. In addition, the program would create a revenue stream — an estimated $500 million or more — as an endowment for state marine conservation programs. This money would be contributed by the oil companies from the money they save through partial, rather than total, rig removal.

The speaker’s creative and important legislation also would initiate a financial incentive system that encourages oil companies to begin the process of partial removal sooner rather than later. After 2017, the longer the platform operator waits to initiate the decommissioning process, the more the operator would pay the state from its partial removal savings. This reasonable and responsible rigs-to-reefs program would provide the certainty to the decommissioning process currently lacking in California, and set the stage for tremendous benefit to our precious marine resources.

In addition to taking the platforms off the skyline, the preserved platform reefs would become significant assets to California and its coastal communities in the form of increased tourism, diving and recreational fishing opportunities, as these platforms have immense clouds of fish present at all times. For the petroleum industry, the program provides an alternative to full platform removal that is both more economical and also a genuine positive for the environment.

The environmental impacts associated with fully removing the rigs would be substantial, particularly on air quality. Removal is a major engineering and industrial operation involving major air emissions from heavy equipment, large diesel-powered specialty ships on station for many weeks, and potentially thousands of barge and truck trips to haul the scrap to designated disposal sites.

Under the program created by AB 2503, platforms would be considered individually by state and federal agencies for preservation based on environmental review and habitat value. This would ensure that partial removal and preservation is environmentally superior to full removal. The decision would be left to the permitting agencies. Once approved for preservation, the top portion of the rigs and all petroleum producing equipment would be removed and the underwater structure, below 80 feet of depth, would remain as a thriving reef. Before decommissioning, platform wells also would be completely plugged and capped. To protect the state and taxpayers, the prior owner or operator of the wells would retain all liability for damages associated with any oil seepage in perpetuity.

In this era of deep concern for our marine environment, AB 2503 would help ensure that this precious habitat, and the life it supports, can be preserved. It should be the goal of all of us to return California to the sustainable marine abundance it once enjoyed. This legislation is a strong step to do just that. The Legislature approved the bill overwhelmingly and now it awaits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature.

It is time to act. The clock is ticking.

— Montecito resident Richard Rogers is a member of the California Fish and Game Commission.