California Environmental Group Opposes Land Restoration - Judges Old Oilfield to be an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area!

A little known but controversial development, an environmental group is in the odd position of opposing land restoration on an old oilfield. The 400-acre parcel of land, called Banning Ranch, has had oil production since the 1940’s. It has been closed to the public for over 70 years. The ranch has produced nearly 36 million barrels of oil over the decades, though today it is only about a tenth of its original size.1

The controversy stems from the fact that it is one of the only remaining parcels of land that is undeveloped in that part of Southern California, lying partly in Newport Beach and partly in unincorporated Orange County. It is surrounded with very dense development; though other similarly sized parcels of land are currently parks in the area. The developer consortium, Newport Banning Ranch, (NBR) plans on restoring approximately 80% of the land and developing the other 20%, with the result that nearly all would be available to both the public and wildlife. A small part, about 15 of the 400 acres, would remain in oil production activities.

The development plan has been in progress and modified numerous times in the past nine years, first to satisfy concerns of the City of Newport Beach, and more recently those of the California Coastal Commission (CCC). Each revision has attempted to address concerns of various groups.

Should the development not go forward, the property would likely remain a “derelict brownfield for another 50-100 years”, according to Mike Mohler of NBR.2

Ironically, the extreme environmentalists, represented primarily by a group named the Banning Ranch Conservancy, (BRC) are claiming that the old oilfield is an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, or ESHA. Species said to be found on the parcel include the San Diego fairy shrimp and the California gnatcatcher (a bird). The developers (NBR) claim that the environmental/no-development group (BRC) makes numerous false claims that they cannot possibly accomplish, should they (BRC) be given control of the parcel. NBR says that “they [BRC] do not have the means to restore, let alone purchase the property.”3

Sam Singer, a spokesman for NBR adds that, “It is backward thinking for so called ‘environmentalists’ to advocate leaving oil waste and residues in the ground. The property, located right next to hundreds of homes, parents, children, schools, and seniors, deserves to be cleaned up for the citizens as well as for the future benefit of the wildlife and natural habitat.” 4 

The heart of opponents claims seem to be in the definition of what land is considered ESHA. A CCC staff report from last year designated nearly all of the ranch as ESHA (a California construct). Even CCC commissioners disagreed, saying the oilfield parts of the tract that needed remediation looked more like Oklahoma than endangered California habitat.5

After firing the executive director of the CCC and directing staff to redo their study in a professional way (the first had been done without even setting foot on the ranch), staff resubmitted. In May, the CCC staff approved a project somewhat smaller than NBR’s proposal, but similar (as opposed to the radical one first submitted.)6 NBR is working on what could be the final revision to comply with that approval. The CCC will meet to consider this in July.

Other areas were more sensitive and not as damaged. The LA Times, not usually a friend to conservatives or the oil industry, even noted recently that, “Despite its seven decades as an active oil field, the tract boasts wetlands, coastal sage scrub, grasslands and seasonal pools that provide a refuge for plants and wildlife that have all but disappeared from the Southland’s heavily urbanized coastline.”7

In what can be considered another irony, the “environmentally sensitive” site is bounded on one side by the “Santa Ana River”, or what is called that. Today it is nothing but a large concrete drainage ditch to the Pacific Ocean.


Map of proposed development—dots are oil wells and power poles, pipelines in yellow. The environmentalists are opposing reclamation of the land, even claiming some holes dug to repair pipelines that collect water during rainstorms are sensitive wetlands! (Click on image to expand.)

1Banning Ranch Conservancy,, accessed July 11, 2016.
2 Anne Mulkern, “In reversal, Coastal Commission staff endorses major project,” E&E Publishing, LLC, May 2, 2016, accessed at on July 11, 2016.
3Newport Banning Ranch, “Fact vs. Myth: the real story”,, accessed July 11, 2016.
4Singer, Sam, personal correspondence email July 12, 2016.
5 “How the California Coastal Commission pressured scientists to change opinions on major project,” LA Times, May 7, 2016, online at:, accessed July 11, 2016.
6Th11c Staff Report: Regular Calendar, Newport Banning Ranch, LLC, accessed online at: on July 11, 2016.
7“In reversal, staff of Coastal Commission recommends approval of Newport Beach hotel and housing project,” LA Times, April 29, 2016, online at:, accessed July 11, 2016.


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