Council to Vote On Wetlands Restoration

Sean Belk

The Long Beach City Council is scheduled to vote Jan. 16 on whether to approve a proposal that would involve consolidating oil drilling operations in the Los Cerritos Wetlands to nearby sites and restoring the degraded marsh back to its natural habitat.

Despite some objections from environmental groups and Native American land preservationists, the Long Beach Planning Commission last month unanimously approved recommendations for the city council to certify an environmental impact report (EIR) and coastal development permits for the project.

The project, which requires approvals from the California Coastal Commission and other government agencies, is the vision of Synergy Oil & Gas and its subsidiary Beach Oil Minerals that took over ownership of wetlands property and mineral rights from the Bixby Land Company that first began drilling for oil in 1924.

John McKeown, CEO of Synergy Oil & Gas, told the Beachcomber in an interview that the proposal was developed shortly after the transfer of ownership nearly five years ago, as new oil extraction technology came online and a new zone of oil was discovered in the field as well as opportunities in the existing zone.

As the company sought to re-initiate operations, upgrade technology and increase production, McKeown led a charge to create a plan to remove oil operations from the wetlands, invest in the restoration of the degraded habitat and still use new technology to tap oil reserves, he said.

“Maybe there’s a way to figure out how to use new technology and still get out of the wetlands,” McKeown said. “Oil operators don’t like to be in the wetlands. It’s very difficult...  You’re operating in a very sensitive habitat and there are all these different rules and requirements about where you can walk and what you can do.”

He said the oil consolidation project, which includes building new office buildings and holding facilities, is expected to cost nearly $250 million while the wetlands restoration, which will include restoring 76 acres of wetlands and building a community interpretive center and trail system, is expected to cost nearly $6 million. Both projects are being processed under one development permit, McKeown, noted.

“We’re actually going to restore [the wetlands],” he said. “We’re going to break in and bring water back in.”

Plans call for phasing out oil drilling facilities on nearly 183 acres of property (bounded by Pacific Coast Highway, 2nd Street, Studebaker Road and the San Gabriel River) over the next 44 years. The project would consolidate oil operations to two off-site locations that encompass approximately 12 acres of land.

In a land swap, Synergy has agreed to transfer ownership of approximately 156 acres of property currently used for oil operations in exchange for a 5-acre parcel owned by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (LCWA), a government entity formed more than a decade ago to oversee wetlands preservation.

Oil operations on a separate 33-acre parcel of land owned by the City of Long Beach are also being phased out as part of the project.

The LCWA site, located at Studebaker Road and Westminster Avenue, would include 70 new oil wells, associated oil storage tanks and a micro-grid integrated energy system. The oil operator plans to install 50 new oil wells and develop a new two-story office building and warehouse on a 7-acre parcel known as the “Pumpkin Patch” site, located at Studebaker Road and Pacific Coast Highway.

During the Planning Commission meeting, Peter Zak, a partner with Synergy Oil, said the project will reduce the oil operator’s footprint in the wetlands and replace outdated oil wells, tank farms and pipelines with modern technology that is “safer, cleaner and more efficient.”

The new oil operations, he noted, are expected to increase production for the company and generate an estimated $4 million annually in new revenue for the city through oil barrel taxes.

Eric Zahn, project manager for the LCWA, said the project is part of a long-term plan to restore the wetlands in the Seal Beach Oil Field and any alternative would include oil consolidation. Prior to the proposal, such wetlands restoration, including re-opening tidal waters to the habitat, weren’t even feasible, he said.

“We never fathomed that there would be an opportunity where an entire 100 acres of oil operations would be completely removed and allowing free-flowing tidal waters throughout a large expanse,” Zahn said.

Still, representatives from two community organizations, including Protect the Long Beach/Los Cerritos Wetlands and Citizens About Responsible Planning, have filed opposition letters and appeals, according to city staff.

Opponents of the project, including environmental groups and local residents, have expressed concerns about environmental impacts from new oil wells and about the potential use of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” a controversial oil extraction technique associated with causing groundwater contamination, oil spills and earthquakes.

McKeown confirmed, however, that fracking has not been used at the wetlands property since drilling began nearly 90 years ago and the oil operator does not plan to implement the practice in the future, although new drilling technology will be implemented as part of the oil-well consolidation.

“We’re not going to be doing anything different than what we’ve been doing since 1924,” he said. “The only thing we’re going to be doing is extracting the same oil that we extract now in a much safer and much more efficient way.”


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