California AG believes proposal to drill for gas in Suisun Marsh is not 'in the public interest'



By Dan Bacher | 

In California, so-called "protected areas" on both land and water are often NOT protected from oil and gas drilling. The classic case of this is the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative that failed to protect the ocean from oil and gas drilling, fracking, military testing, corporate and government pollution and other human impacts on the ocean besides fishing and gathering. 

As I've discussed in article after article, what passes for "protection" in California is often overseen by the very same industries that have caused environmental destruction in the first place. In one of the biggest West Coast environmental scandals of the past 20 years, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) served as the CHAIR of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create "marine protected areas" in Southern Caifornia at the same time that she was lobbying for increased offshore drilling.  

More recently, Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance revealed how the state of California has allowed 102 operational oil and gas wells to operate in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Southern California, in addition to permitting 50 operational oil and gas wells on California state lands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. To read Fractracker’s full report, go to: fractracker.org/…  

However, in what could be an important precedent for stopping new efforts to permit oil and gas drilling in California's "protected areas," Matthew Rodriguez, Acting Attorney General, on April 2 issued a press release stating that the California Department of Justice (DOJ) does not believe a proposal for a permit by Sunset Exploration to drill for natural gas in a protected area of the Suisun Bay wetlands, a critical part of the imperiled San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, “is in the public interest.’” 

Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance, in her latest post on the Alliance's website, points out this welcome news:

"Sunset Exploration, the same company that proposes to restart oil drilling outside of Brentwood, has also applied for a permit to drill for gas within a protected area in the Suisun Bay wetlands, the largest marsh on the West Coast.  But on April 2nd, the California Department of Justice put Sunset Exploration and the Army Corps of Engineers, the project’s lead deciding agency, on serious notice:”

“Based on the information currently available, DOJ does not believe that Sunset Exploration’s proposal is in the public interest,” the release states.

Sunset Exploration’s gas drilling proposal can be found here. The proposal’s project description states: 

“As shown in the attached drawings, the applicant proposes to drill one exploratory natural gas well, 150 feet by 250 feet area, over a 2-3 week period at the Hunter’s Point Project Site.  If economical quantities of natural gas are discovered, Sunset Exploration would install production equipment and a natural gas pipeline from the producing well to an existing natural gas pipeline located approximately 8,821 feet to the northwest. The proposed project includes two phases: a site exploration phase (#1) and a production phase (#2).”

Suisun Marsh is “the largest contiguous brackish water marsh remaining on the west coast of North America,”according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Under section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) Sunset Exploration must obtain a permit from the Army Corps to destroy wetlands as part of its effort to explore for natural gas in the Suisun Marsh. If the exploration project is successful, Sunset Exploration will develop full-scale fossil fuel extraction facilities at the site. 

In response to the proposal, the AG’s Office wrote:

“The Suisun Marsh provides key habitat for numerous bird species migrating on the Pacific flyway, fish species such as the green sturgeon and Chinook salmon, and rare plant species such as the Suisun thistle. The project site is also located within a few miles of several environmental justice communities that have been overburdened by air pollution and other environmental hazards for decades, including the cities of Suisun City, Fairfield, and Vallejo. This high pollution is due in part to existing oil and gas facilities in the area. Exploratory drilling in the marsh is likely to create significant air and water pollution due to the operation of heavy machinery and the use of drilling mud, diesel fuel, and other chemicals. The construction of full-scale production facilities is likely to be accompanied by even greater air and water quality impacts, as well as significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions, in tension with state and federal climate policy.

Before proceeding, therefore, DOJ urges Army Corps to:

  • Make Sunset Exploration's application available to the public and reopen the comment period to allow for public review of and comment on that application;
  • Consider the project's potential environmental justice and greenhouse gas impacts, as well as alternatives that would not harm the unique saltwater marsh habitat and the species that depend on it;
  • Consult with wildlife agencies concerning potential impacts to all federal- and state-listed species;
  • Determine whether the project is consistent with state law restrictions on the placement of fill in Suisun Marsh;
  • Prepare an environmental impact statement, rather than an environmental assessment, given the project’s potential significant environmental impacts; and
  • Evaluate all available mitigation measures.”

A copy of the comment letter can be found here.

Wechsler reported that 11 environmental organizations, including Sunflower Alliance, signed on to comments to the Army Corps on February 26 pointing out that “approving new gas development would cause significant harm to air and water quality, the surrounding ecosystem, and the climate,” and that “issuing permits for new fossil fuel development is fundamentally incompatible with a safe and healthy future.”  

The letter also notes that the Suisun wetlands “provides habitat for multiple endangered, threatened, and fully protected species.”  It is “part of a critical ecosystem supporting a multitude of imperiled species,” and is a “vital body of water that provides the region with jobs, recreation, and natural beauty that draws tourism from around the world.” The letter calls for a thorough environmental review of the project, according to Wechsler.

“It looks like the state Attorney General agrees,” concluded Wechsler. 

Sunset Exploration’s application for a permit to drill for natural gas in a protected area of the Suisun Bay wetlands comes at a time when the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is in its biggest environmental crisis ever.

In its 2020 Fall Midwater Trawl Survey throughout the Delta, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found zero Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus). This was the third year in a row that zero smelt, once the most abundant fish species in the estuary, were found in the survey.

“All signs point to the Delta smelt as disappearing from the wild this year, or, perhaps, 2022,” according to a California Water Blog post by Peter Moyle, Karrigan Börk, John Durand, T-C Hung and Andrew L. Rypel.

The dramatic decline of Delta smelt and other fish species, when viewed over the period of 53 years since 1967 when the environmentally devastating State Water Project went into operation, shows that California’s image as a “green” and “progressive” leader, has little basis in fact when it comes to how the state has treated the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s fish populations.

Between 1967 and 2020, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) abundance indices (combined September, October, November and December surveys) for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

“Taken as five-year averages (1967-1971 vs. 2016-2020), the declines for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad are 98.1, 99.8, 99.8, 26.2, 99.3 and 94.3 percent, respectively,” said Jennings.


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