While a statewide law that was originally slated to go into effect in January would have limited where Long Beach can drill for oil, that law has since been put on hold until voters can weigh in—giving Long Beach the opportunity to continue drilling near “sensitive areas.”
The city is now taking advantage of the pause on the new law, as the City Council approved an oil drilling plan Tuesday that will continue oil production in areas that would have been off limits under Senate Bill 1137.
Long Beach is required to submit an annual “Unit Plan” to the California State Lands Commission each year that outlines its plans for things like new well development, anticipated volume of oil production and projected profits, which the city must try to maximize under state law, city officials said.
This year’s plan calls for 33 replacement wells to be drilled, 29 of which are on Island Grissom, one of the four THUMS Islands off the city’s coast, and Pier J, two areas that the plan notes will be subject to SB 1137, which is currently on hold because of a referendum vote scheduled for November 2024.
SB 1137 requires 3,200-foot buffer zones to be in place between oil operations and sensitive areas like homes, parks, schools and hospitals. Activists on Tuesday demanded the city revise this year’s plan given that some of the wells could be within those buffer zones, and they called on the city to enforce the 3,200-foot buffers despite the law being on hold.
Those who called for the early enforcement of the law said the city’s current plans are out of step with its stated intent to phase out oil production.
The city has said it will phase out oil production by 2035, a claim that has been criticized by activists who pointed out that is also the year that oil operations will no longer be economically viable. The state has a target of ending oil production by 2045.
“Just because we will eventually run out of fossil fuel doesn’t mean we’re moving away from fossil fuels,” said Kevin Joerger, who wants the city to start phasing out oil production now.
The bill would both prohibit new oil operations and significantly impact existing operations within the 3,200-foot zones.
Maintenance and other work requiring a permit from the state would not be approved if a well is within the buffer. Operations would also be subject to potentially costly monitoring requirements that could force operators to stop pumping.
City officials said in December that SB 1137 could cost the city as much $20 million annually in lost revenue and endanger large projects like the Belmont Pool, a pier replacement project and others slated to receive money from the city’s Tidelands Fund.
Some who showed up to speak at Tuesday’s council meeting took issue with the report’s reference to maximizing profits, pointing to a warning issued by the United Nations earlier this week that the world is expected to pass a temperature threshold in the next 10 years that could lead to catastrophic warming if nations don’t immediately transition away from fossil fuels.
“This is our responsibility, but this plan looks nothing like responsible,” said Brady Bradshaw, an oceans campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The plan presented to the council Tuesday night was originally on the consent calendar portion of the agenda, which is typically not discussed and voted on as a single block of multiple items, but it was pulled for discussion because of the amount of people who showed up to speak against it.
The city’s director of Energy Resources, Bob Dowell, said the report was due back to the state by Thursday, which left basically no time make revisions.
“I think the way this is being presented with a couple days—I’ll apologize on behalf of the city because I’ll tell you that much of our focus—this really doesn’t really represent what our focus has been as it relates to creating a future that’s independent,” said Mayor Rex Richardson.
Richardson campaigned on creating a plan for growing the city’s economy to prepare for when oil operations end, and earlier this month the council approved his “Grow Long Beach” initiative, which seeks to focus on other sectors like aerospace, tourism, goods movement and education as oil revenues dwindle.
The city attorney’s office advised council members that under state law, the city was required to submit these plans, which the state ultimately could revise. Limiting oil production without an existing law in place could open the city up to lawsuits.
Deputy City Attorney Rich Anthony said those lawsuits could come from a variety of entities including the state, individual owners, operators and contractors who have contracts and rights to drill for oil in the city’s portion of the field.
Anthony said it was difficult to put a figure on how much those suits could cost the city, but he said that he’d expect those suits to start with lost profits projected out over the life of the oil field.
“Those are pretty big numbers—they’re very big,” Anthony said.
Long Beach, the state and other individual right holders have to come up with about $1.2 billion for the projected costs for abandoning oil wells and setting up the water injection infrastructure to ensure that the ground does not sink beneath the city after production has stopped.
Long Beach’s share of that total is about $154 million, and the city has set aside about $70 million to fund abandonment. The city’s current plan requires oil production to continue in order for it to come up with the remaining $84 million for well abandonment.