Oil operations in Long Beach will soon expand, and in return the city will receive wetlands in need of restoration after the California Coastal Commission voted 6-3 Thursday to approve a permit allowing for Beach Oil Minerals to drill new wells in southeast Long Beach.
The deal has been heralded by city leaders as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Long Beach to gain back wetlands that would otherwise continue to languish as unused oil machinery storage. But environmentalists called it a thinly veiled oil expansion project that would do little to enhance the environment.
Long Beach 7th District Councilman Roberto Uranga, who was first appointed to the commission in 2015, reiterated the city’s stance that the deal was necessary to restore and expand the amount of wetlands currently available to the public by making a deal with the oil company that currently owns the land.
“If we were to vote against it there are no guarantees we’d have this opportunity again in the next 20, 30, 50 years,” Uranga said. “The fences are going to stay up, the gates are going to stay closed and the would be no access for anybody. That’s not the alternative that we want.”
The three commissioners who voted against moving forward with granting the permit were commissioners Carole Groom, Mary Luévano and Linda Escalante.
Under the permit granted by the commission, Beach Oil Minerals will first have two years to satisfy the special conditions laid out in a staff report. They include obtaining permits from other state and federal regulators and providing pollution prevention plans, oil spill prevention and response plans and seismic and geotechnical analysis (the project is bisected by the Newport-Inglewood fault, which flattened Long Beach in 1933).
But after those conditions are met, the group can begin tearing down unused gear and wells on one parcel of land located north of the intersection of Second Street and Pacific Coast Highway and begin to drill up to 120 new oil wells on sites currently owned by the city and the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority.
Oil operations are expected to be phased out and removed from the site within the next 20 years, a reduction of the originally proposed 40-year timeframe.
The new wells to be drilled on the Pumpkin Patch and LCWA site sit across Second Street and Studebaker Road could increase daily production from their current levels—300 barrels per day—to about 24,000 barrels per day. The two sites will be connected by a 2,200-foot above-ground pipeline.
It’s projected that greenhouse gas emissions will grow by over 70,000 tons annually, which commission staff said will have an impact on residents surrounding the site. But as part of the special conditions, Beach Oil Minerals will have to participate in the state’s cap and trade program which allows polluters to offset emissions through actions like planting trees.
Greenhouse gas emission levels, and the transparency in which they were presented to the Coastal Commission, became a point of contention for Commissioner Escalante who pointed out that staff had to revise figures originally presented by Beach Oil Minerals because they “sugarcoated” the new project’s potential impact by inflating the levels of pollution that they are currently emitting.
“To me, that fundamentally violates the premise of good partnership,” Escalante said. “Honesty it is the number one tenet of good partnership. I do condemn in strong terms that BOM sugarcoated its largest adverse affect on the public.”
She called for a delay in granting the permit, asking for more time for both the commission and the public to review the report. That motion was ultimately voted down by a 7-2 vote.
Once the permit is officially handed over to Beach Oil Minerals, it will start a process that will see the immediate restoration of about 30 acres of wetlands area in southeast Long Beach, a process that is projected to be completed in the first one to two years of the project. The idea that a large area of land that is currently peppered with dilapidated oil infrastructure could be renewed to green wetlands habitat was a point of emphasis for supporters of the project.
“All I’ve been hearing here is preserving the land,” said Dennis Summers. “That’s the greatest thing I can think of as a Native American. We’re all here together and we want our Mother Earth to be as pure as it can be. I don’t understand why you would be against that.”
Michelle Black, an attorney who was speaking on behalf of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, said that the project, if not approved, would not stop future oil drilling from taking place. But approving the project would produce benefits that were meaningful and enduring.
“For decades we’ve tried to get the drills out of the wetlands so they can recover,” Black said. “This accomplishes both of these heavy lifts.”
Opponents of the project agreed that wetlands restoration was a good thing but that it should come at the cost of increased oil production in the city. Ann Cantrell, representing a Long Beach activist group Citizens About Responsible Planning, hammered away on this point noting that while the footprint of oil operations would shrink, the carbon footprint of its production would increase dramatically.
“More wells and more barrels of oil make this an oil expansion project,” Cantrell said.
Her presentation to the commission also highlighted the distinct possibility that the wetlands that the city and so many supporters were advocating for could very soon be underwater if sea-level rise models are accurate.
The staff report included modeling for sea-level rise from anywhere to 2 feet to 6 feet, in which case the relocated oil production sites would remain above water. However, modeling from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that even at one foot of sea-level rise the wetlands would be inundated by water.
After nearly eight hours of public comment and deliberation by the commission it voted to approve the permit for Beach Oil Minerals.
“We’d like to thank everyone for their patience,” said Commission Chair Dayna Bochco. “We all hope that one day we’ll never have to trade wildlife for oil.”
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