revised September 2023
When we think of the fossil fuel industry in Contra Costa County, what might come to mind is coal export—Richmond—or more likely petroleum refining—in Richmond and along the northern industrialized shoreline. Contra Costa County hosts four of the five Bay Area refineries that make up the second largest refining center on the West Coast. But it’s also the tenth largest center of oil and gas extraction in California.
What follows is the story of how an attempt to resurrect oil drilling in Contra Costa County triggered a movement to stop it altogether.
In May 2020 the County reviewed a new application for exploratory drilling in unincorporated Brentwood and found it good. A county planner performed a perfunctory environmental review of a proposal calling for three exploratory oil and gas wells, to be made permanent if commercial quantities were found, with a gas pipeline extending under the city of Antioch. The County announced its intention to issue a “negative declaration,” in the parlance of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In other words, nothing to look at here, folks, move along: more oil and gas drilling won’t negatively impact public health—or climate.
A deluge of public comments calling for a rejection of the Negative Declaration poured into the County by the end of the comment period on June 9th, 2020. County residents and environmental activists called for flatout denial of the permit, or at least a full Environmental Impact Report on the project. On August 1st, the Department of Conservation and Development announced that “additional environmental review is required” and that a Draft Environmental Impact Report would be ready for public comment in October of 2020. The release date was pushed to April—and as of March 2023, that report is still pending. At this point, it looks like the project is effectively stalled.
But it wasn’t easy winning this undeclared victory. We were at the start of a pandemic when we learned, almost by accident, that some fast operator wanted to increase oil drilling in East County, with inevitable costs to air and water quality and negative impacts on community health. Indiana-based PowerDrive Oil and Gas Company, LLC specializes in “rejuvenating neglected California oil fields” and has active wells operating in Kern and Orange counties. Now it had its eyes on the Old Brentwood Oil and Gas Field, first discovered in 1965, and at its production heyday a half century ago. In silent partnership with Brentwood-based Sunset Exploration, PowerDrive wanted to get the party started all over again, and on agriculturally-zoned county land, no less.
This did not sit well with close neighbors to the proposed drilling site who are a mere 700 or 1,100 feet away, depending on who’s counting. Or with the elementary school, medical high school, and major medical facility (Kaiser Antioch) only a half mile away. Or the adjacent shopping centers and neighborhoods. We have learned a lot since the mid-sixties, when county policy actually “encouraged” fossil fuel production, about the serious health impacts caused by living near oil and gas development. A FracTracker literature review found that these impacts include higher cancer risk, pneumonia, increased asthma attacks, skin-related hospitalizations, depression, and other general health symptoms. For pregnant women, living closer to drilling sites is associated with high-risk pregnancies and premature births, a higher risk of having babies with birth defects, and low birth-weight babies.
Current research shows that a 3,200-foot setback from drilling sites is actually on the lower end of the range of distances that could reduce the harmful health and quality of life impacts from toxic emissions and exposures. A 2021 Stanford study found negative health impacts within a 2.5 mile radius from oil and gas facilities. A state investigatory panel found that further away is better, or more health-protective, and best is no drilling at all. A prolonged statewide effort has been underway to enact setbacks to protect “sensitive receptors” such as schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, residences, hospitals, and health clinics. (See this useful compilation of research on public health risks of oil and gas drilling.) But East Contra Costa residents have made it clear they don’t want to see new drilling in their environs at whatever distance.
An already existing site on Deer Valley Road lies just outside of Antioch city limits, a half mile away from Kaiser Antioch. The drilling operation—a joint production of Sunset Exploration and UK-based Reabold—was approved by the county in July 2019. In fact, it had already been operating for about nine months before it received the County rubber stamp.
A year later, in July 2020, Brentwood Hills residents filed complaints about strong, sickening hydrocarbon odors that appear to be related to the raw methane flaring from this site a full mile away. These residents live in the very subdivision that will also be most highly impacted by the proposed drilling. Fifteen houses in this neighborhood were built twenty years ago over capped oils wells, and some of these homes contain methane vents. There are also methane vents disguised as lamp posts scattered through the neighborhood.
These vents, and the emissions they are designed to release, are the troublesome legacy of the first phase of drilling in the Old Brentwood Oil and Gas field. Residents have never seen any monitoring by county or state regulators of methane or other emissions, or of subsurface pollution. Cement well casing can crack, and wells inevitably leak. Neighbors just hope for the best.
Our job is to make sure there is no second phase.
Update: Since this post was first published in May 2020, the City of Antioch has banned drilling within its own borders, and passed a resolution urging the County to protect Antioch residents by banning drilling on unincorporated county land. The City of Brentwood has put a drilling moratorium in place within its own municipal boundaries, followed by a permanent ban in early summer 2023.
The effort to protect East County residents from oil and gas extraction continues to gain countywide support. A petition urging the County to ban new oil and gas drilling and phase out existing drilling, with protections for impacted workers, has been signed by over 4,250 Contra Costa residents. The Democratic Party of Contra Costa County has passed an anti-drilling resolution, and the Diablo Water Board has done the same. Over 50 county-based environmental and social justice organizations have signed an anti-drilling letter, and 130 Contra Costa medical health practitioners and students have signed a similar letter sponsored by Climate Health Now. The Contra Costa County Sustainability Commission took the same position in an advisory letter to the Board of Supervisors in the summer of 2020.
In March 2022, over 300 Antioch and Brentwood youth marched and rallied in Antioch to call for an end to oil and gas drilling. And four cities thus far—Antioch, Richmond, Pinole, and El Cerrito—have passed resolutions addressed to the County, urging it to stop permitting new drilling and to phase out existing infrastructure.
The end goal is to align land use policy in the County General Plan with the County’s current Climate Emergency and Just Transition policy declarations. Watch this site for future developments and calls to action. Signers of the petition will also receive action alerts about decisive meetings.
For more information: See https://www.sunflower-alliance.org/why-were-suing-calgem/
East Bay Times, East Contra Costa city bans oil and gas drilling, producing, 1/12/2022
East Bay Express, High Stakes: The Movement for a Countywide Drilling Ban Gains Momentum, 11/3/2021
KPIX (CBS 5), Brentwood: Oil Drilling May Be Coming Back to Brentwood Next to New Homes, 6/10/20
KPFA, A Rude Awakening, debate between Andrés Soto and oil and gas driller Bob Nunn of Sunset Exploration, 6/5/20
KPFA, Le Show de Andrés Soto, interview with Brentwood Resident Jon Wilson, 6/5/2020
The Press, Oil and gas-drilling project heating up community, 6/5/20
East Bay Times, Op Ed, Oil Drilling Threatens Children’s Health and the Climate, 5/29/20
East Bay Times, County Extends Comment Period for Proposed Oil Drilling in Brentwood, 5/22/20
KPFA, A Rude Awakening, interviews with Brentwood residents Jovita Mendoza, Sinziania Todor and Jon Wilson, 5/22/20
SF Gate, Comment Period Extended for Brentwood Area, 5/19/20
East Bay Express, The Oil Well Next Door, 5/13/20
No Drilling in Brentwood Facebook page.