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Contra Costa County supervisors have extended until June 9 the public comment period for a proposed exploratory oil and gas drilling operation west of Brentwood, which would be situated on rural land that was once part of a productive oil drilling area in the mid-20th century.
County Supervisor Diane Burgis, in whose district this new drilling would occur if approved, said she isn’t sure how the public noticing for this project fell through the cracks. The distractions related to the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a part, she said, and the departure of a county planning staffer overseeing its applications may also have played a part.
Burgis said she requested the extended public notice.
“I didn’t want people to think we were trying to get away with something,” she said Tuesday.
The drilling proposal has drawn fire from members of East Bay environmental advocacy groups and others as a threat to the health of people living nearby — the property under discussion is bordered by Brentwood housing tracts on its east and south boundaries — and for its perpetuation of what they consider to be counterproductive pursuit of outmoded fossil-fuel energy forms.
About a dozen speakers called in to the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors May 12 meeting asking for an extension of the public comment period past the original May 19 date, saying the coronavirus pandemic has both helped obscure the existence of the proposal and made it harder to study it in a timely way.
“I am very, very plugged in to my community around these sorts of issues; I live and breathe this stuff, and I heard about this literally five minutes before this (May 12) meeting was supposed to start,” Rebecca Auerbach of Concord told the supervisors.
“Oil drilling poses many health and environmental risks, and everyone who will be affected by these changes deserves a chance to speak,” said Katerina Gaines, affiliated with Youth vs. Apocalypse, an Oakland-based environmental group led mostly by teenagers.
Gaines, who lives in Belmont, this week said, “I’ll be feeling these effects in my future, as will people in these (Brentwood) communities,” she said.
Indiana-based PowerDrive Oil & Gas Co. proposes to use a temporary portable drilling rig to drill and explore for the accumulation of oil and/or gas within the Brentwood Oil and Gas Field on part of a 160-acre parcel west of the Brentwood Hills and Brentwood Lake residential neighborhoods on that city’s western edge.
The Brentwood Oil Field was once a productive source of crude oil, where the Shell Oil Co. and the Occidental Petroleum Corp. had working drill rigs. Its peak of operation came in the 1960s, and ultimately supplied almost 10 million barrels of oil, the most of any oil field in Northern California.
Oil drilling by the big companies had ended there by the late 1990s, though some smaller projects have arisen in the years since.
One of them is a well near Deer Valley Road a mile west of the proposed PowerDrive project. The well is owned by Brentwood-based Sunset Exploration. That company’s owner, Bob Nunn, said Sunset is a partner with PowerDrive on the new proposal, the application for which was first filed with Contra Costa County in May 2019.
“It appears there are still some economic reserves in place, enough to justify finding out,” Nunn said.
It’s less a matter of improved technology that makes smaller finds economical, Nunn said, than it is of taking the time to try different parts of the property.
The PowerDrive plan calls for three exploratory wells to be drilled. If oil and/or natural gas is found there in commercial quantities, casing will be installed and a smaller completion rig will be moved in and a permanent production well will be installed. If commercial quantities of oil and/or gas are found, installation of a completion rig will take 30 days, and the rig would operate about 12 hours a day.
The PowerDrive proposal also includes installation of a 3,350-foot 3-inch gas pipeline under the existing access road, most of it within the city limits of Antioch.
Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance, a pro-renewable-energy environmental group, said she heard about the project by chance on May 8, four days before the last supervisors meeting. She insists there are more health-related questions than the county’s “negative declaration” report acknowledges, and supports a full environmental impact report.
“This carries with it serious health impacts,” said Wechsler, who on Tuesday said a long-term battle against the project seems likely. “I am afraid this is going to be a very long slog.”
Nunn said he hasn’t heard any formal complaints about the Deer Valley Road drilling rig, and added that thanks to California’s permeable sandstone a mile under the surface that gives up its oil and gas relatively easily, there will be no need for fracking with this project. He said the fact there is a hill between the proposed drill site and the nearest homes should make it more palatable.
Jovita Mendoza said news of the drilling project likely got lost in the “COVID shuffle,” and that people in her Brentwood Hills neighborhood have since become acutely aware of it. On May 14, Mendoza started a Facebook page dedicated to it, called “No Drilling in Brentwood.” It already has 332 followers, some of whom plan to take part in weekly ZOOM calls about how to counter the PowerDrive proposal.
“A couple of weeks ago, that’s when people started realizing what’s going on with this,” Mendoza said. “We want to be healthier, greener, moving away from fossil fuels.”