County extends comment period for proposed oil drilling in Brentwood

Contra Costa County officials have extended the comment period for a proposed exploratory oil and gas drilling project in unincorporated Brentwood that took some nearby residents and environmental activists by surprise.

The Indiana-based Powerdrive Oil and Gas, with Brentwood partner Sunset Exploration Inc., proposes to drill three exploratory wells, and if “commercial quantities” of oil and gas are found, a smaller rig and production well will be installed at the 160-acre undeveloped site near the southeastern corner of Antioch and western edge of Brentwood.

Though first proposed last May, few seemed aware of the project until just before the May 19 deadline to comment, County Supervisor Diane Burgis said, noting she asked for an extension until June 9.

“It wasn’t something that people were trying to get in under the fog of COVID-19 … but nobody was really aware of it until it came to this point,” she said, noting the proposal had gone through the normal permitting process.

“I didn’t know much about it and I wanted to extend the comment time and then we’ll learn about it as it is being analyzed by our county staff,” added Burgis, whose district the new drilling site would be part of if approved.

Located about a half-mile south of where Heidorn Ranch and Old Sand Creek roads intersect, the unused parcel sits on land zoned for agriculture though it has been primarily used for cattle grazing in recent years.

Decades earlier the Shell Oil Co. and Occidental Petroleum Corp. extracted crude oil and natural gas at the site as part of the Brentwood Oil and Gas Fields. The fields boomed in the 1960s, producing 9.8 million barrels of oil, the most of any fields in Northern California.

Sunset Exploration Inc., meanwhile, has been drilling wells since 1980, including about two dozen in the unincorporated Brentwood/county area. In 2018 it began drilling for leftover oil reserves on nearby Deer Valley Road in Antioch less than a mile from Kaiser Permanente and still maintains an operations there.

Sunset President Bob Nunn said his Deer Valley drilling operations produce high-grade light crude oil and have not generated any complaints even though they are within sight and closer to the neighbors than the new proposed venture.

“I think the neighbors understand that what we have is a compatible use,” he said. “We try to be polite by not sighting these things too close. A lot of people live closer to gas stations than that.”

Many local residents, however, are already organizing in opposition to the proposed drilling site, which sits about 1,000 feet over a ridge from residential development in Brentwood.

Brentwood resident Jovita Mendoza, who lives about a half-mile away, said she has been organizing weekly Zoom meetings to stay in touch with her Brentwood Hills neighbors about the issue. She also created a “No Drilling in Brentwood” Facebook page, which now boasts nearly 400 followers.

Mendoza said her main concern is health, noting her daughter has asthma and she fears any negative impacts potential toxins oil drilling might bring. She is also concerned about any ground movement the drilling might bring in the area, which is near the Antioch faultline.

Nunn, however, said worries about seismic activity due to fracking are unwarranted.

“We are very specific about the projects we do — we don’t do fracking and we don’t do (carbon-intensive) steam flood projects,” he said, noting the sands are naturally permeable and no such methods are needed.

Even so, Mendoza said she had “a whole list of things that concern” her.

“It’s just an overall nuisance, it’s going to be making noise all the time, there’s going to be big lights, there’s going to be flaring, there’s going to be dust, noise…” she said.

Diperna Ray, who moved to Brentwood only a month ago, also said he was shocked to learn about the plans, noting his home is some 800 feet downwind from the site.

“My biggest concern is pollution, air pollutants, air table pollution, noise pollution,” he said. “I have two kids and two elderly parents and I am really concerned about their health….I have a lot of questions about this project.”

Nunn said though he understood neighbors’ concerns, recent noise studies showed their operations were well within the county’s noise limits.

“They’re all reasonable concerns, but we have done two separate recent noise studies (on current operations), and at 1,000 feet you cannot hear the operation.”

According to the proposal, exploratory drilling will take about 20 days per well with continuous 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-a-week operation until completion. If successful, a 3,350-foot gas pipeline would be installed under the existing access road, most within Antioch city limits.

In its review, the county has determined that despite some environmental impacts, they would “be less than significant” so the project wouldn’t require further environmental studies.

“We would like them to do an environmental impact report,” Mendoza said. “…They said there were no issues. We know there are issues.”

Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance, a pro-renewable-energy environmental group that opposes the project, said there are more health-related questions than the county’s “negative declaration” report suggests, and supports a full environmental impact report.

She said scientific research suggests there are “considerable health risks of living near oil and gas production.”

“We’re at an important juncture in Contra Costa County. Do we keep doubling down on fossil fuel production, or do we put the health and safety of our residents first?”

Nunn, however, had a different take.

“The environmental decisions we should be making is not burying our head in the sand and saying no more oil, because we are going to have oil for decades,” he said. “We should be making better choices of how do we get to green energy faster and how do we utilize better cleaner oil in the process until we get rid of it..”

The proposal can be viewed at https://www.contracosta.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/66992/LP19-2019-Notice-of-Public-Reviewpdf-WEB-VERSIONpdf-rev-web-version.

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Author: Judith Prieve

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