SUISUN CITY (KPIX 5) — A new proposal to drill for natural gas in the East Bay has environmentalists up in arms, and not just because it’s a polluting fossil fuel. It’s the location that has people really upset.

That’s because it’s in the Suisun Marsh, the largest marshland on the West Coast, a highly protected natural habitat for migratory birds, fish and wildlife.

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“You have got to be kidding!” was former Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s first reaction when she found out about a plan to drill in the marsh.

“Nothing about this project makes any sense,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a senior lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity.

A dozen environmental and community groups have submitted a letter opposing a plan by Brentwood-based Sunset Explorations to build an acre pad on private property in the marsh and drill an exploratory gas well there.

“95% of the wetlands in California have been destroyed. We only have 5% left and it ought to be nurtured and taken care of and not threatened,” said Patterson. “At a time when we should be moving away from dirty fossil fuels, why would be expanding into new projects?” said Kretzmann.

Opponents say drilling in the marsh could not only endanger fish and wildlife, but the resulting pollution will also impact surrounding communities like Suisun City, Fairfield, Vallejo and Benicia whose residents are already suffering health effects from nearby refineries.

Sunset Explorations CEO Bob Nunn begs to differ.

“We are impacting one acre of wetlands,” said Nunn. “And the requirement is that we then have to create three times more than that. There’s a net gain to the environment here.”

The 116,000-acre marsh sits over a large and still productive gas field. According to a state map, most of the wells in the area are capped. But a few are still active, altogether producing billions of cubic feet of gas a year.

Nunn told us he sees potential to produce billions more by reviving a capped well in the Suisun Slough on the southern end of the marsh. He says it will benefit rather than harm nearby disadvantaged communities.

“Because if you are not producing oil and gas here in California, you’re bringing it from dirtier sources, right?” said Nunn. “You’re creating less jobs in California, less tax base.”

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Nunn also argued the risk of spills is lower than the current status quo of natural gas imports. “Instead of us building one-and-a-half miles of brand-new pipeline, we’re going to bring natural gas from 3,000 miles away?” said Nunn. “Well okay, want to make the leak comparison between 3,000 miles of natural gas pipeline versus a mile-and-a-half? I think we hold up pretty well in that argument.”

But critics don’t buy it.

“We shouldn’t be debating where our dirty fossil fuel comes from,” said Kretzmann. “We need to move beyond that and think about how to move toward a future that is more sustainable and safer and prioritizes our health over industry profits.”

“There’s no compromise here. I mean, absolutely no compromise,” said Patterson. “We’ve compromised wetlands up and down the state. And this is the last place to compromise.”

It’s not going to be a quick decision. Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can sign off on the project, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and potentially many other state and local agencies, can oppose it and may require stricter environmental reviews.

Acting California Attorney General Matthew Rodriguez has weighed in, saying in a letter to the Army Corps the marsh “is a unique and irreplaceable natural resource that is important to the state and to the nation as a whole.”

“That was a highly unusual letter at this point in a public process. Borderline inappropriate, quite frankly,” said Nunn.

We asked Nunn what he plans to do, since this is not his first rodeo. His response: “There’s more opposition. Not only are you in the rodeo, you know, riding the bucking bronco, but the crowd’s throwing rocks at you at the same time.”

If the going gets too costly, Nunn says he may just back off.

“This is just an incredibly small project on one acre. If you make it so incredibly difficult, we’ll move on,” he said.

The owner of Arnold Ranch, the duck club where Nunn plans to drill, didn’t want to go on camera but told us he will make money from the deal. Much of the Suisun Marsh is privately owned by dozens of duck hunting clubs. We couldn’t find any that wanted to comment on this story.

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