An oil operator of the Los Cerritos Wetlands shared details this week about a proposal to restore the degraded marsh back to its natural state, consolidate oil wells to offsite locations and, eventually, completely remove oil infrastructure from the habitat.
Local environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about the proposal, which consultants say would require city, state and federal approvals over the next three years for a full environmental-impact review (EIR) process for creating a “mitigation bank” on 76 acres of the site and allow for public access to the wetlands with an interpretive center and trails.
Environmentalists are particularly skeptical about the proposed mitigation bank, which would allow the oil operator to receive credits for restoring the wetlands. The credits could then be sold to developers that may have interests other than restoration.
“We don’t have an official position on the proposed mitigation bank at this point, because it’s very early on in the process,” said Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, during a packed meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 27 at Kettering Elementary School that drew a crowd of more than 100 people. “But [we] support the process moving forward so that we can all learn more about this interesting and intriguing proposal.”
Additionally, the nearly eight-year project includes plans for the oil operator to double its oil production by tapping into a newly discovered pool of oil at the Seal Beach Oil Field, which is only 7 to 10 percent depleted, according to the oil operator.
For several decades, most of the Los Cerritos Wetlands, bounded by Pacific Coast Highway, 2nd Street, Studebaker Road and the Los Cerritos Channel on the border of Long Beach and Seal Beach, has been fenced off to the public because of privately held oil operations.
The oil operations have prevented the 156-acre wetlands from being developed for residential or commercial purposes, but, at the same time, the oil drilling has left the wetlands, which once spanned 2,400 acres, to decay, causing it to be classified as “degraded.”
John McKeown, CEO of Synergy Oil & Gas, spoke about his vision for the proposal during the meeting. The company took over the wetlands property and mineral rights from the Bixby Land Company after its heir Mark Bixby, Tom Dean (who owned property in and around the wetlands) and their business partner Jeff Berger died in a plane crash in 2011.
McKeown said Synergy was formed nearly two years ago after family heirs searched for a buyer. He said a China-based equity fund agreed to his concept of restoring the wetlands while still making a profit in the oil field, adding that most of the other prospective buyers were solely interested in the bottom line.
“It’s one thing to leave the wetlands alone, not touch them,” McKeown said. “It’s another thing to restore them, to actually spend money restoring and bringing back [the] habitat. So that was one of the objectives: to not only restore but put money back into it.”
McKeown, a longtime Long Beach resident who said he had no prior experience working in the oil industry before being asked to lead the company, explained that it was after walking the grounds and seeing the wetlands habitat for himself that he decided to develop a plan to restore the habitat while coming up with a way to move the oil operations.
“I’d always drive by and look out and say ‘gosh, it’s pretty neat out there,’” McKeown said. “It’s almost another world. Unless you’ve been out there and walked around, it’s something that’s really something hard to explain. You’re literally in the middle of a major metropolitan area, but you can walk out there, and it’s quiet, and there’s animals, and it’s really beautiful.”
Synergy’s plan includes spending nearly $80 million to move oil wells while restoring 152 acres of wetlands that currently encompass most of the company’s oil-field operations.
Using new oil-drilling technology, oil wells would be consolidated from more than 100 to just 10 acres at two “offsite locations,” McKeown said.
One drill site would be located at a seven-acre parcel known as the “pumpkin patch” site owned by Lyon Communities where executive offices and headquarters would also be relocated, he said.
The other site would be located at a five-acre parcel owned by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (LCWA), a governmental entity formed in 2006 through an agreement between the California State Coastal Conservancy, the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and the cities of Long Beach and Seal Beach.
In total, Synergy plans to drill 120 new wells on these two sites with 60 wells for each site, McKeown said. This would nearly double the company’s oil production, which currently amounts to about 58 oil wells.
In addition, more than 63,000 linear feet of pipeline (95 percent of the company’s pipelines) would be removed, “making more land more accessible for restoration,” according to a project fact sheet.
Thienan Pfeiffer, a wetlands biologist with consulting firm Glenn Lukos and Associates, confirmed during the presentation that an interagency review team (IRT) has already been formed to oversee the creation of the mitigation bank that would restore the 76 acres surrounding an area known as the Steamshovel Slough, where the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust conducts kayak tours.
The IRT, she noted, is composed of representatives from the California Coastal Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pfeiffer said the wetlands restoration alone is expected to cost about $3 million to $4 million and would include restoring wetlands areas that currently have no active oil wells. She said the work would primarily include removing road networks and increasing “hydrologic connectivity.”
According to project proponents, the City of Long Beach is responsible for preparing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis and will decide what type of documents would be required by CEQA.
In addition, the public will have an opportunity to review and comment on the CEQA document, and applications still have yet to be submitted to the City, project proponents state.
The visitor or interpretive center at the wetlands is expected to be funded through an endowment and a “long-term management plan” that would be handled during the establishment of the mitigation bank, according to proponents.
Pfeiffer said the plan is to receive entitlements with conditions of approval to begin wetlands restoration work at the mitigation area by March 2018 with all restoration, including 72 acres on a southern portion, expected to be completed by 2023.
A project fact sheet notes that the proposal is expected to provide a “faster process” for restoring the wetlands than the City’s current efforts to update its Southeast Area Development Improvement Plan (SEADIP), which is currently underway after failed attempts for commercial and residential developments at the Seaport Marina Hotel site.
Project consultants add that Long Beach city staff has suggested that the proposed restoration project be processed separately than SEADIP. ß