Southeast Long Beach land swap could net more wetlands—and more greenhouse gases

The California Coastal Commission may decide two issues dealing with land use and a new oil development in southeast Long Beach this week when it gathers in Newport Beach for its last meeting of the year.

The re-writing of the city’s oldest land use plan, the Southeast Area Specific Plan, would codify the type of development that could be constructed in the area that includes the Los Cerritos Wetlands and Marina Pacifica. The document would allow construction of taller buildings.

Passage of the local coastal plan is considered a formality since it has already been approved and re-affirmed by the City Council.

The more contentious oil development, which the city and applicant describe as a wetlands restoration project, is still to be decided.

If the project moves forward, the city would swap land with an oil production group that would return wetlands to the city, while a parcel that currently belongs to a wetlands conservancy group and another plot—the home to a popular seasonal pumpkin patch and Christmas tree lot—would be converted to oil production and storage facilities.

This map shows the existing Beach Oil Minerals site (in green), about 150 acres, and a city-owned site (in aqua) that would both be restored with vegetation and coastal wetlands; the 7-acre pumpkin patch site (in light yellow) and a 5-acre site owned by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (dark yellow), would be used for oil production.

The application for a permit submitted by Beach Oil Minerals, a group which includes Synergy Oil, the operator of the active oil wells within the wetlands’ footprint, could be approved by the commission as early as Thursday. This could start the clock for the project to break ground sometime before the end of 2021 at the latest.

The California Coastal Commission will decide if this Christmas Tree lot become an oil production facility in Long Beach December 7, 2018. Photo by Thomas R Cordova

The project would more than double the total daily production capacity from 10,000 barrels per day to 24,000 per day and would include the drilling of up to 120 new oil wells and a 2,200-foot above ground oil pipeline connecting two parcels of land straddling Second Street. Currently, the Synergy Oil Field produces about 300 barrels per day according to the report.

Additionally, the amount of greenhouse gases would be significantly increased if the project moves forward. The new project would have the capacity to produce about 68,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually compared to the approximately 1,636 metric tons per year currently produced by oil production at the site, according to the report.

In return for being allowed to expand their oil operations, Beach Oil Minerals would cease production and remove oil infrastructure from the wetlands site and transfer ownership of the land to the city. It’s estimated that over the next 40 years, about 150 acres of wetlands could be restored.

Kate Huckelbridge, a senior environmental scientist with the California Coastal Commission, said that if the commission votes to approve the permit, Beach Oil Minerals would still have to satisfy a number of special requirements laid out in the commission’s report. The permit would not be granted until those conditions are met.

Huckelbridge noted that it’s been a long time since the commission has voted on a new oil project, but said that approving new production at a time when the state is seen at the forefront of converting to renewable energy is a matter of policy and compliance.

“The coastal act was written in the ’70s before we were actively thinking about how to combat climate change,” she said. “It does include policies that … allow development of oil and gas projects in the coastal zone.”

The oil company will have to meet special conditions, including a prevention and response plan to potential oil spills, and demonstrating that it has the financial responsibility to clean up a spill.

It must also demonstrate that its facilities, including a number of large storage tanks and an above-ground pipeline that would connect the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority property and the pumpkin patch lot, could withstand “worst-case earthquake” events.

The report states that in a worst-case scenario, the facility could spill as much as 2.8 million gallons.

“That would be a catastrophic spill,” Huckelbridge said.

She noted that while a project would be typically found inconsistent with the commission’s policies—namely ensuring that an oil spill doesn’t find its way into the ocean—the commission could still grant a permit.

City Council Moves Forward With Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration, Oil Drilling Land Swap

The commission would have to consider a number of things to do so, including whether alternative sites for the project are feasible, whether a rejection of the project would negatively impact public welfare, and whether the project’s adverse environmental impacts have been mitigated to the maximum extent.

Other site locations were considered in the original environmental reports and were rejected for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the project’s inability to separately house production and storage sites without a connecting pipeline and the inability of the sites to have both production and storage in the same location.

The report notes that while the state is a large consumer of fossil fuels, the overall production levels at the project site wouldn’t play a major factor in the state’s overall production. However, the report states that not approving the project would likely abandon any chance of restoring wetlands area in the city.

“To leave the restoration potential of these wetlands in limbo, with the prospect of maintaining oil development on potentially valuable biological, cultural and scenic areas, would adversely affect the public welfare,” the report reads. “At this time, the only way to ensure restoration of these wetlands on an established timeline would be to approve the proposed project.”

[Editors note: The original version of this story stated that current oil production levels at the Synergy Oil Field site is 300 gallons per day. It currently produces 300 barrels per day. The story has been updated to reflect that.]

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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