‘We have to stop’: Plan for fossil-fuel drilling on the flanks of San Francisco Bay draws protest

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge: The Suisun Marsh is the largest brackish marsh on the West Coast. It deserves our protection. It will play an important role in mitigating climate chaos that is only getting worse. The county is working to approve this proposed drilling site with a mitigated negative declaration that does not cover some of the biggest problems with the drilling. The decision to approve this project and the mitigated negative declaration will soon be in front of the county planning commission.  If you want to be kept informed of action on this proposed drilling project please email me at kathykerridge@gmail.com  It would be great to have people write the planning commission and appear at the meeting.]

` A great egret takes flight over Grizzly Island in Suisun Marsh south of Fairfield. A natural gas well has been proposed for the area. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle.
SF Chronicle, by Kurtis Alexander, October 29, 2023

Two years after public opposition halted a bid to drill natural gas in Suisun Marsh, next to San Francisco Bay, a Florida energy company is taking another run at it.

Lantos Energy LLC submitted an application with Solano County last month to construct a well and a possible pipeline alongside wetlands about 10 miles east of Benicia, where the bustling East Bay eases into the quiet of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The area historically has been a bastion for natural gas, with many companies, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., still getting a bulk of their fuel from the region. Hundreds of wells, for nearly a century, were drilled into the area’s rich fossil-fuel deposits to heat homes and generate power — without much fanfare.

Map: Todd Trumbull/The Chronicle • Source: Lantos Energy LLC.

But that was then, and this is now. Anxieties about fossil fuels overheating the planet and a better understanding of their ecological impact and potential for pollution are bringing increased scrutiny to even the most mundane projects. Some who fought the 2021 proposal for a well in Suisun Marsh, which included the state attorney general, have begun mobilizing to resist the new drilling effort.

“Do we really need more gas wells?” said Kathy Kerridge, a Benicia resident who was active in the opposition campaign two years ago. “Can’t we just be building solar panels and wind farms?”

Ducks swim in Suisun Marsh south of Fairfield. A Florida energy company has submitted an application to build a new natural gas well in the area, but it’s meeting resistance. |
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management has determined, despite the emerging criticism, that the proposed drilling operation will have no “potentially significant adverse environmental impacts,” clearing the way for the county’s Planning Commission to decide whether the proposal should move forward, likely early next year. Approvals from several state agencies will also be required.

While county documents cite possible problems for plants and wildlife in and around the marsh, including the San Joaquin kit fox and Western burrowing owl, they prescribe measures for reducing disturbances. The proposed well would be in grassy uplands adjacent to wetlands, which like the marsh are subject to some level of protection under the state’s Suisun Marsh Preservation Act.

As far as climate change goes, the county’s evaluation of the project says building a well won’t produce significant greenhouse gases, but it doesn’t address heat-trapping emissions that would result from the production and consumption of newly drilled fossil fuel.

Officials with Lantos Energy did not return calls to discuss the project with the Chronicle.

According to county documents, the company’s plan is to first drill to see if there are sufficient reserves of natural gas at the site, and if so, proceed with the construction of a pipeline to an existing pipeline nearby. Where the natural gas will end up is not clear.

The state has enacted an ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector — by 48% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels — and to be carbon neutral by 2045, in an effort to combat climate change. However, with renewable energy facilities still ramping up to meet demand, natural gas and oil wells continue to be developed.

Part of their endurance, says Rob Jordan, an earth scientist at Stanford University with expertise in global warming and energy extraction, is the limited window that fossil-fuel facilities have to operate as California winds down fossil-fuel production.

“California may be getting out of the oil and gas business, so there is some urgency for companies to get wells permits while they can,” he said.

Two years ago, Brentwood’s Sunset Exploration rolled out plans to drill at an abandoned well just west of the site of the current drilling proposal. The project drew a litany of concerns, including the potential for methane leaks that natural gas wells inherently pose and its proximity to low-income communities.

The company withdrew its application shortly after going public with the plan.

“We have to stop extraction,” said Shoshana Wechsler, a founding member of the Sunflower Alliance, an East Bay group that fought the Sunset Exploration project and is now sounding alarm about Lantos Energy. “We’re so far behind where we should be. We’re so heavily periled. We have to stop.”