SoCal marine protected areas, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta threatened by oil and gas wells

By Dan Bacher | 

A recent report by Kyle Ferrar of the Fractracker Alliance confirms my extensive reporting on how the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative in Southern California, chaired by Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) President, did little or nothing to protect the marine environment from oil and gas drilling.

The report also reveals the threat to the ecosystem presented by oil and gas production wells on state land on Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. This is particularly alarming considering that Newsom Administration is currently fast-tracking construction plans for the Delta Tunnel, potentially the most environmentally destructive public works in California history.

“The fossil fuel industry has historically taken advantage of the nation’s mineral estate for private profit, while outsourcing the public health debts of degraded environmental quality to Frontline Communities,” said Ferrar. “While President Biden has recently ordered the Department of Interior to put a 60-day halt on permitting new oil and gas drilling permits on federal lands, no such policy exists for state lands in California.”

Ferrar said Governor Newsom’s administration has allowed the California Geological Energy Management Division to issue rework and new drilling permits on California state lands, bringing the total number of operational oil and gas wells on state lands up to a total of 178, almost half of which are “idle.” This number “pales in comparison to the number of California oil and gas wells on federal lands; a total of 6,997 operational wells,” noted Ferrar.

“FracTracker Alliance has mapped out the operational oil and gas wells located on state lands in California, using the California Protected Areas Database. The areas containing the highest concentrations of oil and gas wells on state lands include two sensitive ecosystem environments,” he stated.

“Figure 1 shows the 102 operational oil and gas wells located in Southern California’s Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. The wells are part of the Huntington Beach oil field. The preserve shares marine habitat with a marine protected area (MPA) and is habitat for numerous rare and several endangered species,” he pointed out. You can see Figure 1 here:

In the waters adjacent to Bolsa Chica State Beach, there are two MPAs, Bolsa Bay State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) and Bolsa Chica Basin State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) No-Take. Both “marine protected areas” went into effect in January 2012 under the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

In an apparent conflict of interest, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd chaired the MLPA Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” at the same time that she was lobbying for offshore drilling in the same region.  

The “marine protected areas” created under the MLPA Initiative failed to protect the ocean ecosystem from offshore oil and gas drilling and fracking, water pollution, energy projects, military testing and other human impacts on the ocean other than fishing. The “marine protected areas” targeted anglers and commercial fishermen — and let the oil and gas industry and corporate polluters off the hook.

California currently has a coastal network of 124 protected areas, supposedly “designed to help increase the coherence and effectiveness of protecting the state’s marine life, habitats, and ecosystems,” according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

In addition to the 102 operational oil and gas wells in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Ferrar also revealed that there are 50 operational oil and gas wells permitted on California state lands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, now in in the midst of its biggest ecological crisis ever.

“More sensitive habitat also threatened by oil and gas extraction; Figure 2 shows the oil and gas production wells on the Sacramento River Delta, just upriver of the Bay Area. It is habitat for several threatened and endangered species such as the Delta Smelt and Giant Garter Snake,” said.  

Ferrar concluded, “California needs Governor Newsom to take a stand against the further exploitation of California’s public lands. A ban on permitting new wells on state land and a commitment to plug existing wells would set an example for Biden’s administration to make the current 60-day freeze a permanent policy.”

The report was published at a critical time for endangered species and imperiled ecosystems like those found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. An oil spill from active wells or connecting pipelines like the Refugio State Beach Spill of 2015 would only serve to add further devastation to already imperiled ecosystems.

For the third year in a row, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found zero Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) in its 2020 Fall Midwater Trawl Survey throughout the Delta. Not only did the survey catch zero Delta Smelt, but it also found zero Sacramento Splittail, a native minnow that was removed from the Endangered Species list by the Bush administration.

“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. “In case you had forgotten, the Delta smelt is an attractive, translucent little fish that eats plankton, has a one-year life cycle, and smells like cucumbers.”

The zero Delta Smelt and Sacramento Splittail found in the survey reflect an ongoing collapse of pelagic (open water) fish species in the Delta that also includes Longfin Smelt, Striped Bass, Threadfin Shad and American Shad.

The dramatic decline of Delta smelt and other species, when viewed over the period of 53 years since 1967 when the State Water Project went into operation, is simply chilling.

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.  

Considering the threat that they pose to already imperiled species in the Delta and on the Southern California Coast, I agree with Ferrar that it’s time for the Newsom Administration to enact a ban on permitting new oil and gas wells on state land and commit to plugging the existing wells.

To read Fractracker’s full report, go to:

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