Los Angeles city council votes to ban new urban oil and gas drilling in historic move

4 months ago

Los Angeles city council votes to ban new urban oil and gas drilling in historic move

The Guardian

Though better known as the homeland of Hollywood, Los Angeles was built on oil. More than 5,200 oil and gas wells sprawl across the city, making it one of the largest urban oilfields in the country.

But on Wednesday, the Los Angeles city council voted unanimously to phase out drilling in the city, a move environmental justice advocates have been working toward for years.

The city will now move forward with drafting an ordinance to ban new drilling and evaluate how to shut down operating wells across the city. Officials will also initiate an analysis of the economic and job impacts and how to transition oil industry workers to clean energy jobs. In order to decommission existing oil operations, an amortization study must also be done on how oil companies can make back their investments if they have not already done so.

“From Wilmington to the San Fernando Valley, gas, drilling and and oilwells have disproportionately affected the health of our working-class neighborhoods,” said the council president, Nury Martinez. “This is yet another example of how frontline communities disproportionately bear the impacts of pollution and climate change.”

Calling the move one of the strongest policies in the entire nation, she said that “Los Angeles is a city that constantly leads the way and today let it be a reminder that the city council prioritizes the health and wellbeing for every Angeleno.”

Other members echoed her sentiments, voicing adamant support for the shift away from fossil fuels development. Many of them credited Stand LA, a coalition of environmental justice organizations founded in 2013, which has spent years organizing around the the issue and highlighting the devastating impact drilling has on residents.

Nearly a third of Los Angeles oil and gas wells lie outside drill sites, scattered between homes, schools and parks, noted Vince Bertoni, director of planning for the city, citing data by the California geologic energy management division in a letter issued to the council last September.

Thousands of residents live in close proximity to wells but the toxic effects are not evenly distributed, with less affluent Angelenos and people of color bearing the brunt of their environmental impact. A slew of studies have shown the toll drilling can have on public health, including higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease and increased risks of babies with low birth weights and other reproductive health issues.

In a paper published last year, researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) noted that South LA residents – predominantly Black and Latino families – who live near active oil development have lower lung function. Deficient lung capacity “may contribute to environmental health disparities”, the researchers said, likening the health effects to daily exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.

Even the drill sites no longer in use pose a threat to health and the environment. According to an LA Times investigation published in 2020, abandoned wells in the city are still emitting toxic gases.

“In this community-driven research, we found that living close to oil sites is associated with lower lung function,” said the researcher Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine in a statement, adding that “these impacts raise environmental justice concerns about the effects of urban oil drilling”.

Oil industry officials cited the potential for negative economic impacts to the city in their criticism of the move, and the 8,300 jobs associated with extraction and development.

“Shutting down domestic energy production not only puts Californians out of work and reduces taxes that pay for vital services, but it makes us more dependent on imported foreign oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq that is tankered into LA’s crowded port,” Rock Zierman, CEO of California Independent Petroleum Association said, noting that California’s crude is more regulated than imports. He also questioned the city’s ability to legally move forward with the plan. “Taking someone’s property without compensation, particularly one which is duly permitted and highly regulated, is illegal and violates the US constitution’s fifth amendment against illegal search and seizure,” he said.

Kevin Slagle, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, argued in an email: “An energy transition that can actually work for communities, families and workers will not be accomplished through production bans and mandating people out of their careers.” He added that climate goals would “best accomplished through collaboration and the innovation and hard work of the people of our industry”.

The city’s decision follows a separate motion from the Los Angeles county board of supervisors, which voted unanimously to phase out drilling in unincorporated areas last September on similar grounds. Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who penned two motions on the issue, said that of the tens of thousands of people living near drilling sites, close to 73% were people of color. The Inglewood oilfield – a site that has on average produced up to 3.1bn barrels a year over the last decade – falls in Mitchell’s jurisdiction.

“In addition to this equity issue, which should concern all of us, oil and gas drilling is contributing to the climate crisis, which we are collectively bearing witness to every single day,” Mitchell told the LA Times in September.

The state of California is also moving forward with new rules requiring drilling to be set at least 3,200ft from “sensitive locations”, which include homes, schools and hospitals. State officials are undertaking a comprehensive economic analysis of the proposal. The plan, which was praised by environmental justice advocates, has been criticized because it enables existing wells to continue operating and only applies to new development. The California department of conservation geologic energy management division found roughly 30% of the state’s production occurs within the 3,200ft threshold.

Los Angeles is planning to go further.

“It has been a long slog,” said councilmember Paul Koretz during the meeting, highlighting the ways in which drilling in his district has harmed residents. “This effort is over 100 years overdue – and it is about time.”