Environmental activists in Contra Costa County were shocked to learn recently that county officials are poised to greenlight a proposal to drill new oil and gas wells in the northeastern part of the county — with a May 19 deadline for public comment.
The site is on an undeveloped plot of land near where the southeastern corner of Antioch abuts the western edge of Brentwood. A residential subdivision sits about 1,100 feet away, just over the peak of a ridge that separates it from the proposed drilling site.
The plan was legally posted April 13 on the Department of Conservation and Development website, but no other public announcement was made. The announcement declared that a full Environmental Impact Review of the plan would not be required, as is required by the California Environmental Quality Act, because county staff members have reviewed the proposal and found that its environmental impact will be “less than significant.”
Yet a network of local environmental activists and organizations vehemently disagrees with that assessment and is mobilizing to fight the project. Opponents’ first step will be to ask the county Board of Supervisors to extend the comment period.
“It takes some kind of mercenary coldness for a county agency, in the middle of a pandemic, to enable the stealth permitting of an oil rig so close to people’s homes,” said Nancy Rieser, a Crockett resident and member of Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), which has been fighting pollution from the Phillips 66 oil refinery in their community for years.
Rieser said she drove to the site the day after she heard about the project. “I wanted to see with my own eyes how close the oil rigs would be to people’s homes.” She parked on one of the streets in the adjacent Brentwood Hills neighborhood, did the short climb to the top of the ridge, and saw the drilling site below. There is an elementary school less than a mile away, and Kaiser Permanente and John Muir medical facilities within two miles of the proposed drilling site. An exploratory well drilled last year is within a mile of the Kaiser hospital.
“When I talked to folks I encountered in the neighborhood and asked if they knew about the proposed oil drilling project and the deadline of the public comment period in the middle of a shelter-in-place order,” Rieser said, “the response was universal: a narrowing of the eyes and a comment like ‘card well played.'”
The Last Chance Alliance, a coalition of local, state and national environmental justice organizations, is campaigning for a state law to require a 2,500-foot buffer zone between oil and gas wells and “sensitive sites” such as homes, schools and hospitals. A bill now in the state legislature, AB 345, originally called for a 2,500-foot setback but was amended to call for creating a setback and a process to decide the size.
“Studies link proximity to oil and gas wells to increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, pre- term births and high-risk pregnancies, and cancer,” wrote the bill’s sponsor, Rep Al Muratsuchi. “Oil and gas extraction produces air toxics, including volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, and hydrogen sulfide. Other risks include water contamination, noise pollution, spills of toxic chemicals, and explosions.”
Muratsuchi cited a report from California Council on Science and Technology recommending a health and safety buffer zone between sensitive sites and oil and gas wells. The Last Chance Alliance points to research showing that, although health effects of oil and gas drilling are most intense in nearby communities, they can be detected as far as nine miles away.
Indiana-based Powerdrive Oil and Gas plans to drill three exploratory wells, then construct a permanent well if “commercial quantities” of oil and gas are found. In that case it will install a 3,350-foot natural gas pipeline that will mostly extend under the city of Antioch.
The site, which is roughly a half mile south of the intersection of Heidorn Ranch Road and Old San Creek Road, is part of an area where Shell Oil and Occidental Petroleum extracted oil and natural gas in the 1960s and 1970s. According to a February 2019 article in the local Brentwood Press, about 60 percent of the material was extracted. The remaining 40 percent will be harder to get out, but another oil company, Sunset Exploration, opened an exploratory well last year in another part of the area to check out the possibility.
The county document said the area is zoned for agriculture and now used for cattle grazing, although it has also been plowed many times, so it is unlikely that any wildlife or historical or geological resources are present. There are no buildings or trees nearby, the document said, and the project would not harm the nearby creek or groundwater. The proposed wells would take up only about 1 percent of the total area and would not interfere with cattle grazing, so the project would not require any zoning change.
Planners did identify some environmental issues. Drilling and construction equipment and truck traffic would produce some health-harming air pollution and climate-disrupting greenhouse gases, but mostly during the construction phase, so the effects would be temporary. The company estimates that construction of the exploratory wells would continue round the clock for about 60 days. Building a permanent well would take another 30 days. When finished, it would operate 12 hours a day.
The assessment does note that oil and gas are hazardous materials. It also mentions possible dangers from earthquakes (the nearest fault is 7.6 miles away) and notes the potential for landslides in the area. However, it says the risks are minimal because all operations and construction will be done according to state safety standards.
The county document also asserts that extracting oil locally will reduce the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that now come from shipping crude oil from elsewhere to Contra Costa refineries.
However climate activists challenge this assertion.
“California oil production already exceeds in-state consumption, so refineries here export an ever-increasing percentage of their output,” said Steve Nadel of the Sunflower Alliance. “By last year it was 33 percent. If the goal is to reduce California’s reliance on imported fuels, why don’t we just limit extraction and processing to the amount it would take to meet in-state consumption needs, as a first step?” All that exporting of finished petroleum products also produces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Along with many other Contra Costa residents, Ogie Strogatz of Walnut Creek opposes the project for reasons beyond local health concerns. “Even if the immediate environmental impact is relatively modest, I don’t care — if it helps perpetuate the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “The question about any project should be: How does this help us transition away from fossil fuel and into renewable energy? If it doesn’t, we have to figure out how we say no. Why we’re entertaining any of this BS at all is beyond my comprehension. It’s just so wrong!”
Strogatz said she’s new to activism (“I’m in the class of November 2016”) but has joined the newly formed 350 Contra Costa, which is campaigning to limit and eventually eliminate fossil fuels in the county.
Another resident, who lives about three miles away and asked not be named, said he was not convinced by the county’s arguments that following state safety standards is adequate protection from the risks. “Any time you drill there’s a potential for a spill,” he said, “for something to go wrong and pollute the environment.”
Environmental groups around the county and beyond are quickly gearing up to put the brakes on this project. Their first step will be asking the county Board of Supervisors to extend the deadline for public comment, to allow time to let people know about the proposal and give them a chance to weigh in. “I don’t think anybody in Brentwood or Antioch has heard about this,” said the anonymous neighbor. “They should extend the public comment period and open the area so the public can see it.”