Bill would protect money for artificial reefs

05 06, 2013 by The Advocate

State Sen. Bret Allain characterizes Senate Bill 128 as a way to ensure that platforms in the Gulf of Mexico become fishing holes for commercial and recreational fishermen as well as eye candy for divers.

His proposed constitutional amendment would direct grants and donations toward maintaining the conversion of obsolete oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs that attract grouper, snapper and other fish.

The habitats ensure an ample fishing supply for fishermen and provide an aquatic mecca for divers.

The proposal, which needs the support of voters and two-thirds of the Legislature, also contains a political undercurrent.

SB128 would stop Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators from grabbing dollars that oil and gas companies donate to the program by locking the 27-year-old initiative into the state Constitution.

Dropping the platforms onto the floor of the Gulf of Mexico often is cheaper than salvaging the iron for companies, which then donate part of the savings to state government for the maintenance of buoys, navigational aids and the health of the structures.

The Louisiana and Oil Gas Association estimates that $46 million in companies’ donations have been used to plug the state operating budget in recent years. Legislators currently are considering whether to grab more money to help with the latest budget crisis.

“Some of (the companies) are upset that money they thought was going to a program to help out fisheries is going into the coffers of the state to support the general fund,” said Allain, R-Franklin.

SB128 rocketed through the state Senate and now awaits action by the Louisiana House.

Jindal said in a prepared statement that he supports the proposal. “Our commitment to Louisiana’s recreational fisheries could not be stronger,” he said.

The governor said he recently announced a $22 million project for fish research and enhancement centers and backs “ongoing reef, barrier island restoration, and marsh creation projects.”

However, Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said part of the governor’s state budget package would drain the artificial reef fund.

House Bill 452 would transfer $20.6 million toward the financing of state government expenses.

State Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham told legislators last week that the artificial reef fund currently contains $13 million and generally takes in between $8 million and $10 million a year.

Briggs said HB452 would leave the fund’s balance at zero and then commit future dollars toward the state budget until the amount in the transfer is met.

An election on Allain’s constitutional amendment likely could not be held soon enough to stop the transfer.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said in a prepared statement that the transfer is allowable. She said the needs of ongoing projects will be met and the mission of the artificial reef fund will be maintained.

“We took these steps to protect higher education and healthcare from further cuts that are unnecessary when excess dollars are available, and we’re confident the law allows us to do that,” Nichols said in her prepared statement.

Apache Corporation, a Houston-based oil and gas exploration and production company, donated $5.5 million to the artificial reef fund between 2011 and 2012.

The company has donated 33 structures to the Louisiana program.

Obie O’Brien, vice president of government affairs for Apache, said more money is being taken out of the artificial reef fund than any other dedicated fund in state government.

He said his company is not pulling back on donations but wishes the Legislature would rethink the money transfer.

The rigs to reef program helps the oil and gas industry as well as commercial and recreational fishermen, O’Brien said.

“It’s one of those things that really is helping the Gulf be as resilient as it is in terms of life in the Gulf,” he said.