By Allen Martin

BRENTWOOD (KPIX 5) — Oil rigs pumping crude right next to homes may be the norm in Kern County. But not in the Bay Area, and that’s why it came as a shock when some East Bay residents found out about a proposal to drill for oil right behind their housing development.

It turns out Brentwood in eastern Contra Costa County sits atop of a huge oilfield that was prolific back in the 60s and 70s, then abandoned in the 90s. There are still traces of it scattered all over the housing development that is built on top of it: street lights that look like old fashioned lamp posts, but are actually methane vents from oil wells capped long ago.

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“When I bought the house almost 20 years ago it was very minimized,” said Jon Wilson, a local resident. The vents have taken on new meaning for him and his neighbors because now some oil and gas developers think the field was abandoned too soon and want to revive it.

“I didn’t think it was real. I was just shocked,” said Wilson. “It just seems ridiculous that in the Bay Area, they’re going to put oil wells next to my house.”

According to a public notice, Indiana-based Powerdrive Oil and Gas Company wants to drill three exploratory wells “and if oil and/or gas is found in commercial quantities … a permanent production well will be installed.”

“We have concerns about any of this leaching into the groundwater, we have concerns this might cause settling under our houses, which is already occurring in the neighborhood,” said Wilson. “If this is going to be a horizontal drilling, that’s going to come underneath our neighborhood that might cause the other capped oil wells to start venting a lot more than they have been.”

Dipenra Rai’s house is closest to the proposed drill site and directly downwind. “So pretty much anything that leaks into the air is going to be basically coming to the neighborhood,” said Rai.

He worries about his elderly parents and his young daughters who love to play outside. “I just purchased my home, and it was not disclosed that there was going to be a drilling site next to my pretty much backyard,” said Rai.

“I get it. I get the natural reaction that this is bad,” said Bob Nunn, whose Sunset Explorations firm is partnering with Powerdrive on the project. “Dozens of wells in Contra Costa have been drilled 500 feet from homes. We just drilled one in Antioch a few years ago, 300 feet from homes. You didn’t have a single complaint, not one,” said Nunn.

His company started drilling again in the old oilfield two years ago just down the road in Antioch and found the wells to be surprisingly prolific. “The oil rates we’re getting now are significantly higher,” said Nunn. “Instead of getting 99% water as they did at the end in 1992 we’re getting 95% oil.”

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He took us to the proposed new drilling location, to show us how hidden it will be. It’s behind a hill and 1,100 feet from the closest home. “All the research that we’ve seen a thousand feet plus, which is what we are, self mitigates any potential health risks,” said Nunn.

As for any risk to those old capped and vented wells: “I don’t have much knowledge about the vents but those wells in that neighborhood were all properly abandoned,” said Rai.

The county hasn’t found any major issues with the drilling plans. A preliminary report says “The project may result in impacts to the environment, but those impacts will be less than significant.”

But not everyone is buying that. “In 20 years of reviewing environmental documents for projects like these, this is the worst I’ve seen,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The exploratory drilling is just the tip of the iceberg for a project like this,” said Siegel.

She says the county report places no restrictions on what will happen if oil is found. “The county’s proposal says nothing about any limitations on fracking or these other ultra-hazardous extraction techniques, like steam injection” said Siegel. “So the county is preparing to write the oil operator a blank check to do whatever they want out there.”

Although Nunn told us no fracking is planned, Siegel told us: “It doesn’t matter what the applicant says. It matters what the county is actually considering approving.”

The county’s Department of Conservation and Development turned down our request for an interview saying in a statement: “We are currently looking into this to determine if it will or will not include horizontal drilling and use of hydraulic fracturing.”

Neighbors are gearing up for a fight. “Nobody wants to see it. It’s just not a neighborly thing to do to put this next to our homes,” said Wilson.

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The public comment period ended yesterday and the Department of Conservation and Development is reviewing the comments. Then it goes to zoning planning, and ultimately the Board of Supervisors must approve.