Environmental Groups Urge Feds to Reject Gas Drilling Project in North Bay WetlandKQED News, by Alice Woelfle, Mar 14, 2021
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.