Dec. 14–A controversial land swap that could eventually restore a 150-acre Long Beach oil field to its natural state as part of the Los Cerritos Wetlands was approved by the California Coastal Commission on Thursday, a key step for the project to move forward.
Synergy Oil will eventually stop operations and hand over the land northeast of the intersection of 2nd Street and Pacific Coast Highway, as well as ending pumping operations on 33 leased acres of city land south of 2nd Street.
In return, Synergy Oil and Beach Oil Minerals won permission to replace 74 old wells on the two sites with 120 new wells at two nearby plots totaling 12 acres.
Despite the much smaller locations, oil production could increase 80-fold.
Three more state and federal permits are needed for the project to proceed, but Coastal Commission approval — which came in a 6-3 vote — has been considered the highest hurdle.
“It’s an opportunity that occurs once in a lifetime,” said commissioner Roberto Uranga, a Long Beach councilman who also sits on the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, which will be the new owner of the wetlands.
“The opportunity to protect and save wildlife and wildlife habitat far outweighs the oil production.”
Environmentalists, area residents and local tribes have been split over the plan, with some eager to restore the wetlands and others wary of the increased oil production, with its substantially higher level of greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility of spills in an area at risk of seismic activity.
The Newport-Inglewood fault runs through the areas proposed for new wells as well as through the existing oil field.
Three commissioners voting against the deal objected to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly given ever more urgent calls to more aggressively reduce human contributions to climate change.
“We’re in an area where we’re trying to reduce greenhouse gas and this doesn’t do that,” Commissioner Carole Groom said.
Environmentalists vs. environmentalists
Because of development and human activity, California has lost 90 percent of the 4 million acres of wetlands it hosted a century ago, according to the state Water Resources Control Board.
Remaining wetlands are considered a crucial environmental attribute, as they capture and store carbon, provide a buffer against floods and rising sea levels, filter polluted water and provide urban recreation areas as well as critical wildlife habitat.
“The proposed restoration would provide and increase much needed wetlands habitat critical for foraging, nesting and migration rest stops for both our resident and migratory birds, many of which are now in trouble as much habitat has been and continues to be lost due to development and other factors,” wrote Audubon California’s Andrea Jones in a letter of support read at Thursday’s meeting.
Citing the growing loss of wetlands to sea-level rise, a coalition of the 18 state and federal environmental agencies in October approved an ambitious strategy to expand the region’s marshes, salt flats, lagoons and estuaries.
But while environmentalists widely agree on the need to preserve and restore wetlands, they are divided on whether the proposed land swap ultimately benefits nature.
“This is not an oil consolidation project nor a wetlands restoration project,” said Angelica Gonzalez of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This is an oil expansion project.”
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Synergy Oil’s 74 aging wells — 21 of which have been abandoned — have a listed capacity of 10,000 barrels a day but only produce about 300, according to the Coastal Commission.
The 120 new replacement units, which would use state-of-the-art slant-well technology to tap into oil deposit well beyond the 12 surface acres where they would be located, could produce 24,000 barrels daily and are expected to run much closer to full capacity.
The new wells would be expected to significantly expand the lifespan of oil production in the area.
They would also produce an additional 70,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the commission. Mitigation would come through the state’s cap-and-trade offset program.
Pumpkin Patch oil rigs
The swap would transfer the 150-acre site from Synergy Oil, which runs current operations there.
The northern half of the site, which does not have oil wells, would see its existing tidal wetlands retained and have other portions returned to their natural state.
Wells on the southern half would be phased out over a 20-year period, as would wells on the 33-acre city land. No future plans are yet in place for the city land.
In return, a partnership dubbed Beach Oil Minerals — which includes Synergy Oil — would receive 5 acres of land at the northeast corner of 2nd Street and Studebaker Road, currently owned by the water authority.
The new wells would be divided between that land and an undeveloped 7-acre site known as the Pumpkin Patch just north of the San Gabriel River at Pacific Coast Highway, already owned by Beach Oil Minerals and used this time of year for selling Christmas trees.
The project would still require approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The Coastal Commission permit is contingent on Beach Oil Minerals obtaining those approvals.
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