LA City Council takes steps to halt oil drilling


The Los Angeles City Council took steps Wednesday to halt oil drilling and gas production in the city and address the legacy of environmental and health problems caused by an industry that helped create modern Southern California.

The council voted unanimously to ban new oil wells and ordered a study to help city officials determine how existing wells can be shut down over the next two decades.

Environmental justice activists heralded the vote as a long-fought victory for the low-income black communities near the wells and a turning point in city regulations that allow oil and gas exploration in residential areas.

“No community should be a victim zone,” said Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA and co-chair of a coalition of community groups fighting to have wells closed.

Oil wells are known to be likely to release carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde, and living near wells is linked to health problems like respiratory problems and premature birth, studies have found.

But storage tanks and oil rigs are hidden behind walls and nestled near homes, schools and youth clubs. In addition to health risks, the active sites can pose 24/7 noise to local residents.

Petroleum was once one of Southern California’s largest industries, with derricks and wells dotting coastal areas from Huntington Beach to Santa Barbara and extending into inland communities like Brea and Echo Park. The industry helped LA grow in the early 20th century and later provided post-WWII jobs for veterans and created some of LA’s great fortunes and scandals in the pre-war years.

The region’s production isn’t what it once was, but there are still more than 1,000 active or idle wells in LA, city officials say.

“Oil drilling in Los Angeles might have made sense in the early 20th century, but now that we’ve become a megalopolis in the early 21st century, it sure doesn’t make much sense,” said Councilor Paul Krekorian, of the San Fernando Valley represents neighborhoods, said at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The motion, approved on Wednesday, directs prosecutors to draft an executive order banning the new oil and gas exploration. The city will also conduct a payback study to understand whether oil companies have recouped the value of their investments at each oil location.

When the businesses recoup those costs, LA officials say it will make it easier for the city to close the sites.

Rock Zierman, executive director of California Independent Petroleum Assn., said in a statement that “shutting down domestic energy production not only puts Californians out of work and lowers the taxes paid for essential services, but also makes us more dependent on imported foreign oil.” from Saudi Arabia and Iraq being fueled into the crowded LA port.”

Crude oil produced in California complies with state environmental laws while imports are exempt, Zierman added.

“Furthermore, taking someone’s property without compensation violates the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution against illegal search and seizure,” Zierman said.

The LA County Board of Supervisors took similar steps last year to end oil production in unincorporated areas. The state is moving toward banning new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and health care facilities and requiring emissions monitoring of existing wells within these buffer zones.

More than half of the city of LA’s active oil wells are in Wilmington, according to Communities for a Better Environment, an environment, health and justice group. The group became involved in the neighborhood in 2007 after local residents complained about massive oil drilling being carried out by Warren E&P Inc.

The operation is near apartment buildings and a youth baseball field, said Bahram Fazeli, director of research and policy at Communities for a Better Environment.

“It was awful — people said it was hell on earth,” Fazeli said, describing residents’ complaints of asthma attacks and nosebleeds. “It’s still a huge threat to the community.”

An Allenco Energy well site in University Park brought reports of foul odors, headaches and persistent nosebleeds. The site was sentenced to permanent closure in 2020 after years of legal and political wrangling.

The city has been harshly criticized by activists for its lack of oversight of the petroleum industry. A 2020 investigation by The Times and the Center for Public Integrity found that the City of Los Angeles has been slow and inconsistent in forcing the petroleum industry to take responsibility for abandoned and unconnected wells.

The ordinance, passed on Wednesday, calls on city governments to draft a new policy to ensure wells are properly plugged and abandoned and site rehabilitation is carried out within three to five years of production cessation.

Jasmin Vargas, senior organizer at Food & Water Watch, said the proposed law would not affect Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the Santa Susana Mountains, the site of the largest gas eruption in US history. The site is outside the city limits.

Porter Ranch was the neighborhood hardest hit by the massive leak in October 2015, with residents complaining of nausea, nosebleeds and breathing problems. Thousands of families had to be evacuated.

City Council President Nury Martinez also tabled a motion Wednesday to create a new city office to help workers transition jobs affected by new technologies, including those in the oil and gas industry.

She said in a statement that the city “cannot right the sins of environmental racism by taking jobs away from working-class communities.”

Emily Alpert Reyes, a Times contributor, contributed to this report. LA City Council takes steps to halt oil drilling

Tom Vazquez

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