High Stakes: The movement for a countywide drilling ban gains momentum

In May 2020, when Brentwood resident Jovita Mendoza learned of a new proposal to drill oil and gas wells less than 1,000 feet from her neighborhood, (“The Oil Well Next Door, May 2020), she was horrified. “When you start reading about the health impacts, I don’t understand how anyone can be OK with that,” Mendoza said. Many studies have documented increased rates of respiratory disease, including childhood asthma, as well as cancer, birth defects, miscarriage, and premature birth, in communities near oil and gas drilling sites.

Mendoza and her neighbors learned about the proposal when Sunflower Alliance, a local climate justice organization, distributed flyers announcing that county planners were preparing to approve the drilling proposal without an environmental impact review. A core group from the neighborhood started meeting with Sunflower Alliance activist Shoshana Wechsler. They organized a deluge of protest that convinced the county to order a full review, which has yet to be released. 

Since then, Mendoza has been elected to the Brentwood City Council, and the movement against oil and gas drilling in Contra Costa County has steadily grown. In October, the Antioch City Council voted to ban oil and gas drilling within the city limits. Also in October, the Diablo Water District passed a resolution opposing future oil and gas drilling in East Contra Costa County. “Because oil and gas are deeper, when you drill, you go right through the aquifer. There are a couple of different ways contaminants can get into the water supply, which we use for potable water,” said Paul Seger, director of the water district.

Seger, who is also chair of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter’s Delta Group, representing eastern Contra Costa County, said he was prompted to take action partly by a petition launched earlier in the month by Sunflower Alliance, calling on county decision-makers to “end new permitting of oil and gas drilling and phase out existing drilling, with protective provisions for those fossil fuel workers whose jobs could be impacted.”  

This growing campaign in Contra Costa joins a statewide movement that has recently claimed some significant victories.In the September Antioch City Council meeting described near the end of this article, the discussion initiated by Councilmember Monica Wilson was not about oil and gas drilling (which the council had already banned) but about whether to renew a permit for a California Resources Corporation gas pipeline that runs under the city. The council voted not to renew the permit. In October, Governor Gavin Newsom announced his administration would develop a ban on new oil and gas drilling within one kilometer — about 6/10 of a mile — of “sensitive receptors” like homes, schools, and hospitals.

That’s the result of “years of work by environmental justice advocates . . . [and] frontline residents — mostly low- income Black and Latino families — whose health has suffered the assault of living next to oil wells for years,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, in a statement from Vision California, a coalition of organizations fighting to end neighborhood oil drilling. 

But, the statement added, the plan the governor announced is just a first step. The draft rule issued by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) would not eliminate the many existing wells currently harming the health of nearby residents, said Daniel Ress of the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment.  

Evidence of the health damage caused by oil and gas drilling continues to mount — and the danger is not limited to close neighbors. A study reported in September in the Journal of the Total Environment tested air quality around five California drilling sites, measuring levels of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone. They found higher concentrations of these pollutants, known to cause major health problems, at distances up to two-and-a-half miles from oil and gas wells. 

Much of eastern Contra Costa County sits on what was once an extensive oil and gas drilling field, operating from the 1960s to the 1990s. Jon Wilson lives in the Brentwood Hills neighborhood closest to the proposed drilling site. He said when he bought his house in the then-new development 19 years ago, he received a map showing 75 houses that had methane vents hidden in the walls to release gas escaping from capped wells. Other methane vents are installed in fake street lights throughout the neighborhood.

When Wilson learned about the proposal for new oil and gas drilling, he went to all 75 houses marked on the map. “No one knew about it,” he said. In addition, Wilson said, “one lady had a house right next to an old well and the house was settling terribly toward the well. My neighbor spent $25,000 to fix his house — he said it was so slanted that when he put the baby in the crib, it rolled.” Many others have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to shore up houses settling into well sites, Wilson said.

When another neighbor, Ken Ervin, learned about the proposed drilling, he said, “I got concerned because of my professional background,” working in a diagnostic chemistry lab and studying the health effects of air pollution. “I was concerned about the health impacts on people here, especially children. My grandson, 5 years old, spends a lot of time here.” 

Ervin said he was also concerned because he and other neighbors sometimes noticed “smells I associate with the oil industry [which] I figured were coming from Deer Valley Road,” where an active oil and gas drilling site has operated since 2019. 

The proposal for new drilling in Brentwood drew more attention to the Deer Valley Road drilling operation, close to homes, a Kaiser Hospital, and Dozier-Libbey Medical High School. Antioch resident Harry Thurston, a former member of the Sustainability Commission, said he and other neighbors had learned about the Deer Valley Road wells only when they drove by and saw the pumps. “No one out here knew a permit had been requested,” he said, so they had no opportunity for input.

There’s even evidence that the drilling started before the permit was issued in July 2019. The local Brentwood Press printed a report Feb. 1, 2019, saying that drilling had been going on for several months, accompanied by a picture of a flaring event there. The permit issued for the drilling operation noted that the Contra Costa Health Services Department’s Hazardous Materials Program had no comment on the proposal, although oil and gas drilling obviously involves hazardous materials. Director Matt Kauffman wrote in an email that typically oil and gas production facilities are exempt from permitting by his program because the statey are regulatesd themby the state. 

The permit issued for the drilling stated that it was approved because it was consistent with the county general plan. And, because it would take place on an existing well pad, the document concluded, “there is no evidence that the project as proposed and conditioned will be detrimental to the health, safety, and general welfare of the County.” This despite published reports on the health hazards of oil and gas drilling going back at least as far as 2012. 

In July 2020, Ervin and other Brentwood Hills neighbors “woke up in the middle of the night and smelled something sickening.” That prompted Charles Davidson, a member of the Contra Costa County Sustainability Commission and an activist with Sunflower Alliance, to borrow some sophisticated equipment for remotely detecting methane and ethane. He measured highly elevated levels from 150 yards away and observed the gas plume to emanate directly from the well pad. Davidson also detected high levels of other toxic volatile organic compounds, in addition to methane and ethane, and reported these findings to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

As concern over the hazards of oil and gas drilling mounted, in September 2020, Wechsler, who is a member of the Contra Costa Sustainability Commission, proposed that the commission send a letter to the Board of Supervisors advocating a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling permits until after the forthcoming revised county general plan is adopted — and a ban on oil and gas drilling in the new general plan. The commission voted unanimously to send the letter.

In the year since, supervisors have been silent on the issue. Supervisor Diane Burgis, who represents East County, wrote in an email, “My standard policy is to not offer my opinion on pending applications or matters prior to them coming to the Board of Supervisors.” Supervisor John Gioia, a member of the board’s sustainability committee, said the board has not yet discussed the proposal because the draft- revised general plan has not yet been submitted. Gioia said he favored a moratorium and inquired about it, but the planning department informed him that it would not apply to the Brentwood drilling proposal because that application is already completed. According to Will Nelson of the Department of Conservation and Development, the county will hold a series of public hearings early in 2022, then probably unveil a draft- revised general plan in the second quarter of the year.

The opposition to oil and gas drilling in Contra Costa has continued to grow. Many residents and local organizations and activists have circulated the Sunflower Alliance petition to ban oil and gas drilling. Ian Cohen, a Brentwood Hills high school student, has been working with other members of Heritage High School’s Project Climate club to get signatures. The proposed Brentwood drilling site, he said, is “a thousand feet from my neighborhood and close to my high school. I knew there were health issues, but I didn’t know it was that dangerous” until the campaign against the drilling proposal started. He and other high school students have been active in speaking up against oil and gas hazards, he said, showing up “in full force” at recent Antioch City Council meetings.

Physician Jeff Mann, a Lafayette resident and member of Climate Health Now, recently did a grand rounds presentation at Kaiser Antioch — situated around 1,000 feet from the Deer Valley Road drilling site. Mann was joined by David Gonzalez, lead author of the recent study on the health effects of proximity to drilling. Mann reported that many Kaiser health care professionals who heard the presentation expressed interest in supporting efforts to stop drilling. 

In neighboring Antioch, Wilson found the issue on the consent calendar and put it on the regular agenda. “It was something I wanted to look into, to hear what the community had to say,” she said. “It’s just very dangerous.” Before the September meeting where the issue was considered, she said, “quite a few community members were calling me, including youth.” 

At the meeting, a representative from CRC argued for renewal of the permit, saying it meets all legal requirements and rigorous safety standards and is a “viable part of the county’s energy infrastructure.” The rest of the public testimony was opposed.

Thurston, who became aware of the drilling issue when he served on the Sustainability Commission, said “I was enlisting people to come — I was the first one who spoke,” urging the council not to renew the permit. “Quite a few high school students — 10 or 15” also spoke against renewing the permit, Wilson said, including Cohen and other members of the Heritage High School Project Climate club. High school student Alexi Lindeman said, “I am deeply concerned for my generation’s future. We should be moving away from oil and gas, which pose serious health and safety threats. Three years ago, I never had to see a sky orange from raging wildfires or sports practice being canceled due to air quality.”

After the lengthy discussion, the council voted three to two not to renew the permit for the pipeline. Wilson said that means the pipeline will not be able to continue operating. 

Statements from oil industry organizations counter this movement by arguing that decreasing oil and gas production in California would have negative results. The California Independent Petroleum Association recently warned that the Los Angeles County ban on oil and gas drilling would raise gas prices and make California more dependent on foreign oil. 

Advocates of banning new wells and phasing out existing wells counter that demand for oil is actually decreasing in California. The state has exported an ever-increasing percentage of its petroleum products.

“Oil and gas companies have been treating our communities as sacrifice zones for over a century. This industry has elevated its own profits above the health, well-being, and lives of primarily BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] and low-income communities,.” said Juan Flores, community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, in a statement commenting on Newsom’s recent announcement.

Concerns about global heating add to the sense of urgency many feel. “I know it’s tough to get off oil, but if we don’t, we’re in big trouble,” said Brentwood resident Ken Ervin. The petition to ban oil and gas drilling in Contra Costa notes that “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international energy agency, recently warned that to maintain a livable planet, all fossil fuel production must end before the end of the decade.”  

“As a major fossil fuel hub,” Wechsler added, “Contra Costa has a unique opportunity — and a moral obligation — to show real climate leadership.  Let’s start by ending oil and gas extraction, and soon.”

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