Judge Denies Attempt to Block California Oil Production Project

A nonprofit environmental group says the California Coastal Commission overstepped its power when it approved an oil development project that will coincide with a wetlands restoration project.

The Los Cerritos Wetlands at Steam Shovel Slough, in the Los Angeles region. (Credit: Cec4711 via Wikipedia)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — For years, the Los Cerritos Wetlands have weathered poor environmental management and oil drilling projects. A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge on Thursday denied a challenge to an oil construction development in the city of Long Beach that is expected to coincide with a 150-acre wetlands restoration project that was approved by the California Coastal Commission.

An environmental nonprofit group sued the commission, arguing they abused their power when they approved the project, which involves a land swap between the oil operators and property owners.

The site could be the future home of 120 new oil wells and a 2,200-ft. aboveground pipeline. The oil operators will in turn decommission old oil equipment and restore sections of the wetlands and construct a new visitor’s center. In December 2018, the California Coastal Commission, a state agency responsible for land and public access control along the Pacific Coast, approved the project.

A nonprofit environmental group, Puvunga Wetlands Protectors, sued the commission in February 2019 along with several of the property owners, including the city of Long Beach and the companies that plan to extract resources from the ground. The environmental group argued the site is home to the western yellow-billed cuckoo and several other special status bird species, along with other wildlife that would be impacted by the project.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel denied Puvunga Wetlands Protectors’ petition to block the commission’s approval of the project. Strobel found that the petitioners as an entity did not participate in the administrative proceedings leading up to the commission’s vote. The group was only created just a few weeks before the actual lawsuit was filed.

“Petitioners have not exhausted administrative remedies on this argument, depriving Commission of an opportunity to respond to Petitioners’ concerns in the administrative proceedings or modify the project conditions,” writes Strobel. “Nor did Petitioners sufficiently plead the claims.”

Puvunga Wetlands Protectors attorney Livia Beaudin with Coast Law Group said that there were numerous parties who testified as a group or coalition during the meeting. That included Puvunga Wetlands Protectors’ director Anna Christensen.

“In that context, I believe it’s appropriate for the issues that were presented by one person to be attributed to others, but also that provides the justification so that not every single person who is a would-be petitioner should raise every single issue, because that would be redundant to the agency,” said Beaudin. “It doesn’t make sense for every single commentator to raise the same issue. It would be a waste of time and it wouldn’t serve the issue of exhaustive requirement, which gives the agency the opportunity to respond to that.”

The proposed project met several criteria under the state’s coastal development conservation mandates. But two elements of the project were out of place: the oil spill and visual resources policies. Namely, the project will include drilling equipment on the site for a 12-year period.

Still, the project was approved by the commission through an override that allowed it to meet the California Coast Act requirements. The restoration project will include roughly 30 acres of salt marsh and mudflat habitat and around 6 acres of wetland buffer areas, with the preservation of 32 acres of relatively pristine salt marsh. In total, the wetlands cover more than 500 acres between the cities of Long Beach and Seal Beach.

The site is expected to produce 24,000 barrels of oil a day when all oil wells are operational. Puvunga Wetlands Protectors argued this would create millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide and the project would eat into a nearly pristine coastal salt marsh. The group said the restoration would be separated from the existing oil wells on the site. They also challenged the land swap the commission made with the oil operators.

The commission said at the public meeting it would be against the public’s best interest if it denied the project, because of the benefits from the land swap and the restoration work that the oil operators will go on to fund.

Strobel agreed that the commission did not prejudicially abuse its discretion when it approved the project. The court also denied petitioner’s leave to amend their writ.

An email to the city of Long Beach was not immediately answered by press time.

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