TAKE A STAND WITH PDB AND 350 BAY AREA ACTION
TO SUPPORT FRONTLINE COMMUNITIES in demanding health and safety setbacks from oil and gas drilling in California
SB 467, the Dirty Drilling Phase out and Setbacks bill, did not pass through the Natural Resources and Water Committee last week because it was ONE VOTE SHORT, but the fight is not over.
The bill is now being amended to ensure that frontline communities are protected from toxic oil and gas drilling by requiring a 2,500 foot setback for the over 2 million Californians that live, work, go to school, and are cared for with oil and gas drilling right in their backyards.
Texas has setbacks—and CA does not. This harms mostly low-income and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. We have just a few days to get at least one voteto move this bill forward to protect the health and safety of our children, neighbors, friends, and workers from the oil and gas industry’s harmful practices. Here’s your chance to join the statewide VISÍON ALLIES Coalition and tell our lawmakers to do something for the health of Californians.
CALL THREE SENATORS NOW AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The target is 1,000 calls to three Senators to urge them to vote YES when the amended bill comes back for a vote.
Thank you for taking action today to secure the health and safety of vulnerable frontline communities.
The Suisun Marsh — known as the largest swath of contiguous wetlands on the West Coast and a haven for thousands of migrating waterfowl — has become the Bay Area’s latest battleground between fossil fuel producers and environmentalists hellbent on fighting climate change.
A Brentwood company, Sunset Exploration Inc., announced in January it wants to explore for natural gas by drilling a section of the 116,000-acre marshland about 9 miles southwest of Suisun City in an area known as Hunter’s Point, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Sunset proposes to construct a gravel drilling pad almost an acre large and drop a volleyball-sized drill bit about a half-mile into the sandstone ground, probing to see if there’s enough gas worth extracting. This first-phase process would last several weeks.
If the well yields enough natural gas, Sunset next plans to build a pipeline from the drilling pad to send the gas to an existing pipeline about a mile and a half away, There, the gas would be tapped to serve about 30,000 homes in the surrounding region for up to 10 years.
Because Sunset already has mineral rights to more than 4,400 acres in the Suisun Marsh, it can technically drill without a permit. But it won’t be able to if the Army Corps determines the well and pipeline would harm the environment.
A coalition of environmental groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper and Center for Biological Diversity, has already taken a stand against the project and wrote a Feb. 26 letter urging the Army Corps to reject Sunset’s request for a permit.
They contend the drilling operation would contribute to climate change because combusting natural gas to produce energy releases carbon emissions. Plus there’s the added risk of gas leaks.
In addition, opponents contend the project would threaten hundreds of bird, fish, mammal and reptilian species that thrive in the marsh, as well as sensitive plants such as the Suisun thistle that doesn’t grow anywhere else on Earth.
So swift and fierce was their response that Sunset is contemplating a retreat.
“It may not be worth the fight,” Bob Nunn, president of Sunset Exploration, said in a recent interview.
Joining the chorus against the project is the state Department of Justice’s Office of the Attorney General, which sent its own letter recently telling the Army Corps that it’s concerned drilling would disrupt natural habitats and produce more carbon emissions at a time when the state is attempting to tamp down its fossil fuel production.
“The proposed fill and drilling in areas of Suisun Marsh could harm unique and irreplaceable habitat for endangered California Ridgway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, numerous migratory bird species, listed fish species, and the very rare Suisun thistle,” the attorney general’s office wrote.
Asked why a state law enforcement agency would weigh in on a drilling project, the office replied in an email, “We’ll let the letter speak for itself.”
Even if the Army Corps signs off on the drilling plans, Sunset Exploration would need to get the OK of other federal and state environmental regulatory agencies, such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.
If approved, Sunset’s wouldn’t be the only natural gas well at Suisun Marsh. Several other active gas wells operate there, their locations shown on an online map created by the California Geological Energy Management Division. About a dozen other gas wells have been plugged and are no longer active for various reasons. Nunn said these wells are similar in size to what he proposes to build.
“We were surprised at the level of opposition,” Sahrye Cohen, a regulatory chief at the Army Corps who will review the permit application, said in an interview. “I think it’s an indication of the times. People don’t want fossil fuels in California.”
Sunset’s Nunn acknowledged his company is pondering whether the costs of an extended review process are justified given the stiff resistance.
“The environmental community likes to thrust longer and longer delays on the smaller projects, until eventually the project becomes unrealistic and the operator says, ‘To hell with it,’” Nunn said.
While natural gas is cleaner than oil, producing less greenhouse gas emissions when it combusts, it still is a fossil fuel — and California’s goal is to reduce its emissions by 40% before 2030, an ambitious plan that involves transitioning to fully renewable energy sources.
Nunn called critics of oil and gas drilling hypocritical for participating in a carbon-fueled society and argued that shipping oil to California from elsewhere emits more carbon than would his local drilling project.
San Francisco Baykeeper’s executive director described Nunn’s comments as “nonsense,” saying there’s no tolerance in the Bay Area for “dinosaur oil companies” amid a transition to cleaner energy sources.
“Any time there’s drilling in the vicinity of wetlands, you need to evaluate thoroughly the environmental impacts of that drilling,” Sejal Choksi-Chugh said in an interview. “The Bay is no place for oil and gas drilling — the fact that (the company) is reconsidering is a big step and we’re pleased to hear that.”
Jacob Klein, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, described Nunn’s justification for drilling locally and extracting natural gas instead of oil as “common talking points” that ignore the bigger picture.
“Rather than make comparisons between petroleum-based energy sources, we just need to be leaving (natural gas) in the ground,” Klein said.
Sunset Exploration acquired an existing Solano County permit and 4,400 acres of mineral rights for Hunter’s Point in 2018 after previous holder Venoco went bankrupt as it was seeking to obtain a drilling permit from the Army Corps.
Sunset was hoping to finish the job, though the opposition is now giving it second thoughts.
“They’re singling me out,” Nunn said. “If this gets drawn out for months and years, the real loser will be the environment.”
Local political leaders and a dozen Bay Area environmental groups are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject a permit proposal for an exploratory natural gas drilling project in Suisun Marsh.
The 88,000-acre wetland in Solano County — the largest contiguous brackish marsh on the west coast of North America — lies near the North Bay cities of Fairfield and Benicia, at the mouth of the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta where the salty waters of San Francisco Bay mix with river water to create an estuary ecosystem that is home to hundreds of species of birds, fish, amphibians and mammals, including river otter, tule elk and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.
The marsh provides habitat to bird species including the endangered California Ridgway’s rail and the threatened California black rail, and is home to rare native plants like the Suisun thistle, which only grows in Suisun Marsh. It’s also an important resting and feeding area for thousands of migrating birds which use the Pacific flyway, making it a popular destination for birdwatching, hunting, hiking and canoeing.
The gas drilling permit was submitted by Sunset Exploration Inc., an oil and gas company based in nearby Brentwood. If approved, the project would create 100 feet of new road and a one-acre drilling pad built on the site of an abandoned, sealed well. If new drilling finds the well to be productive, the site would expand to include storage tanks and a mile and a half of new gas pipeline to connect with an existing pipeline.
In a Feb. 26 letter opposing the project sent to the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of a dozen environmental groups — including the Sierra Club and San Francisco Baykeeper — Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Hollin Kretzmann detailed the potential environmental damage the project could inflict on the marsh’s delicate habitat and on surrounding communities.
The letter notes the permit application lacks details of the location of the road, and which chemicals might be used for drilling and maintenance of the well. It also calls into question the permit’s assertion that drilling at an existing well site reduces impact to the marsh and contamination risks from other nearby existing wells:
When a new well is drilled…it can affect existing wells around it in ways ranging from soil and water contamination, to the [uncontrolled release] of gas that has migrated to the surface. … Older and unused wells can create pathways for water contamination…especially those that were constructed decades ago with outdated technologies and standards.
Environmental groups are concerned that the newly proposed project could pave the way for more abandoned wells to come back online, potentially leading to accidents. There are many abandoned wells in the area, and new gas harvesting technology has made production more efficient in locations that were previously abandoned as unprofitable.
Twenty years ago there was enthusiasm in the oil and gas industry around potential reserves beneath Suisun Marsh and other locations in Solano County. In 2001, one natural gas executive said the area had “some of the most exciting opportunities in Northern California.” But renewable energy technology has also come a long way since then — and the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels and climate change are now a major concern for a majority of Californians.
Suisun Marsh has been damaged by fossil fuel-related accidents before. In 2004, an oil pipeline running through the marsh ruptured, spilling nearly 124,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The spill caused significant damage to wildlife and the company responsible, Kinder Morgan Energy Co., paid over $1.1 million to clean up and restore the marsh.
Kretzmann called the new gas drilling proposal ridiculous.
“We know that we only have a limited amount of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, phase out fossil fuel and implement a just transition to a safer and more sustainable economy,” he said. “So the fact that we’re thinking about expanding our oil and gas footprint in the state, and allowing people to dig for new fossil fuels is just completely ridiculous.”
He said it’s not just the delicate wetland ecosystem that is in danger, but the health of the surrounding communities and the future of the local economy.
“We shouldn’t be in the business of propping up new fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration projects. We should be in the business of protecting the environment, protecting frontline communities and moving us away from fossil fuels.”
Air pollutants are emitted during every stage of gas development. Emissions from the flaring and venting of wells can include harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and formaldehydes. The nearby cities of Suisun City, Fairfield and Vallejo — predominantly communities of color — are already disproportionately impacted by pollutants from nearby oil and gas facilities including Valero’s Benicia Refinery, Marathon’s Martinez Refinery in Pacheco, PBF Energy’s Martinez refinery and Chevron’s Richmond Refinery, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown, who opposes the project, said protecting the environment and transitioning away from fossil fuels is important to her constituents.
“Why are we doing this in the 21st century? We are putting so much time and effort into restoring and protecting Suisun Marsh. My constituents want open space and fresh air and clean water, not gas wells.”
She said her district is actively trying to make it easier for residents to reduce fossil fuel dependency.
“We are working on making a clean power option available to our residents,” Brown said. “We are working on installing more electric vehicle charging stations in our district, because so many people have electric cars, and also because we want to encourage more people to get them.”
In a public letter to the Army Corps on Feb. 24, Brown called for a public hearing and a full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) impact study on the project. A public notice on the project issued by the Army Corps stated that the project does not qualify for an automatic environmental impact study.
Sahrye Cohen, the regulatory chief with the North Bay branch of the Army Corps, said in an interview the agency is still determining whether an environmental impact study will be necessary and that the Corps will require Sunset Exploration to submit alternative plans that would mean less impact on the marsh.
“Can natural gas exploration be done in the Suisun Marsh in an area that has less impact on wetlands?” Cohen indicated the Corps would ask Sunset Exploration. “Could you request that fill be half an acre instead of an acre? Could you situate it partially on an area that has already been filled in? What are your other options here that don’t involve putting fill in wetlands?”
The Clean Water Act requires the Army Corps to permit the least environmentally damaging plan, but Cohen said when it comes to surrounding communities, they usually fall outside the scope of the Corps’ jurisdiction, which only covers actions that occur on waterways. Cohen said it usually doesn’t include a city 5 miles away.
“It all starts from, ‘What are they putting in the wetlands?’ then, ‘What are they proposing that adds onto that?'” she said. “There’s executive orders about environmental justice that we are going to look at for our analysis. But there is a scope limitation, so we don’t know how far that extends yet.”
Cohen was referencing potentially stricter executive orders around environmental justice forthcoming from the Biden administration, but there are also several court cases that limit the scope of the Corps’ jurisdiction. The Corps has received a handful of similar requests for exploratory drilling in and around the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in the last decade, and Cohen said most of them get approved after a discussion of how to reduce damage to wetlands and endangered species.
“I’ve been here for about 12 years,” she said. “I don’t know that we have denied a natural gas well exploratory permit.”
Cohen added that the Corps’ job is to decide, in consultation with agencies like the California Water Quality Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, whether a project is legally permissible. If it is legal, the permit is approved.
Supervisor Brown said that isn’t a good enough reason to “destroy” a wetland.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right. I hope the Army Corps will take that into consideration and reject this project.”
The permit review process will take at least four months. Supervisor Brown, Hollin Kretzmann and other environmental groups said they will do whatever they can to fight the project every step of the way.
Sunset Exploration did not return requests for comment on this story.
The Center For Biological Diversity submitted the following letter commenting on the proposed Hunters Point gas well drilling exploration in Suisun Marsh. The letter is sent on behalf of The Center and 11 other Bay Area groups: Friends of the Earth, Fresh Air Vallejo, Sunflower Alliance, San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter, Climate Protectors, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, 350 Bay Area, Communities for a Better Environment, Good Neighbor Steering Committee of Benicia, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
The two-page cover letter addressed to the San Francisco District Army Corps of Engineers, is followed by 30 pages of detailed comments, downloadable here as a PDF. The letter opens with the following summary comment:
…Approving new gas development would cause significant harm to air and water quality, the surrounding ecosystem, and the climate. Issuing permits for new fossil fuel development is fundamentally incompatible with a safe and healthy future. We urge the Army Corps to consider the attached comments, which discusses why the application for this Project is grossly inadequate and does not meet the minimum standards of state and federal environmental laws. We strongly urge the Army Corps to reject this dangerous and short-sighted Project and work instead to protect communities and the environment from industry pollution. At minimum, the Army Corp must not approve this Project without a full environmental impact study, at least one public hearing, and further opportunities to submit comments on this harmful Project. […continued…]