By Margaret Shuttleworth
The City Council took a major step today toward banning new oil and gas wells in Los Angeles, as well as to begin the amortization process necessary before phasing out existing oil and gas drilling.
Council members unanimously approved a series of recommendations from its Budget and Finance Committee, including:
- Having the Department of City Planning and the City Attorney's Office draft an ordinance to prohibit new oil and gas extraction and make extraction activities a nonconforming use in all areas of the city.
- Having the Los Angeles Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration and Safety hire an expert to conduct an amortization period for existing wells, a prerequisite to decommissioning existing oil fields to allow the oil company to recoup its investment if it hasn't already.
- And having the Los Angeles Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration and Safety create a framework for plugging and remediating abandoned oil wells, which can leak hydrocarbons and methane, with the intention of having the oil companies bear the responsibility.
The ordinance to ban future oil drilling will have to come back for another vote of the City Council.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last year to ban new oil and gas wells and phase out existing wells in unincorporated areas.
This is a momentous step forward for Los Angeles, and a clear message we are sending to Big Oil.Councilman Mitch O'Farrell
The city of Los Angeles has 26 oil and gas fields and about 5,274 oil and gas wells, according to the Department of City Planning. Seventeen drill sites are either active, idle or perform gas drill operations.
"There are oil and gas facilities in nearly every section of the 503 square miles of the city," Vincent Bertoni, director of the Department of City Planning, wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to the City Council Budget and Finance Committee.
Nearly one-third of Los Angeles' oil and gas wells exist outside drill sites and are dispersed throughout the city, Bertoni added, citing data by the California Geologic Energy Management Division.
"This is a momentous step forward for Los Angeles, and a clear message we are sending to Big Oil," Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, the chair of the City Council's Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice and River committee, said in a statement to City News Service.
"These actions—drafting an ordinance to declare oil drilling a non-conforming land use throughout the entire City, initiating an amortization study, proper clean-up of all abandoned wells, and City participation in a task force to protect and assist workers—are critical to our ambitious 'LA100' efforts, which will achieve 100% carbon-free energy in Los Angeles by 2035."
Speaking before the vote Wednesday, O'Farrell said L.A.'s actions would be "a model for the nation and the world."
The potential ordinance to phase out existing oil drilling would rely heavily on the amortization study, according to the Department of Planning, which recommended in its report to the Budget and Finance Committee that the city move forward with the ordinance to ban future oil wells in the interim, because it doesn't require an amortization study.
Several council members on Wednesday thanked the STAND-L.A. coalition for its work pushing the city to ban oil drilling.
"What the STAND-L.A. coalition has done after all these years has fundamentally changed the way we look at this issue. It has fundamentally changed the way I look at this issue," Councilman Paul Krekorian said.
The coalition said on Twitter that the move was "a historic moment for frontline communities on the frontlines of oil extraction. #NoDrillingWhereWereLiving."
Ashley Hernandez, a Wilmington youth organizer for STAND-L.A. co-chair organization Communities for a Better Environment, spoke alongside council members on Wednesday at a news conference outside City Hall.
"I've lived in the front lines of neighborhood oil drilling my entire life and can't begin to express what I'm feeling inside being here in this moment after all of the years of work front-line residents, partners and allies have fought for," she said.
Hernandez credited the council's action to "the courage and resistance of Black and Brown communities rising up against oil extraction that does not belong in our neighborhoods." She said growing up in Wilmington, she experienced nosebleeds and eye infections and saw teachers fall sick due to oil drilling in the community. "Days like today remind us that every single petition, every single voice, every single action and every single person that's come from the front lines of neighborhood oil drilling has mattered enough."
Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents Hernandez's Wilmington neighborhood, said before the vote:
"To say that the issue before us hits close to home for my district would be a serious understatement, colleagues. My district . . . had the highest concentration of oil and gas wells in the city, with nearly 400 active well sites. In my district, we're at home to over 55% of the active sites citywide. . . You can imagine the disruption that this would cause on a daily basis."
In response to a request for comment, the California Independent Petroleum Association sent City News Service a 2019 letter its CEO sent to Council President Nury Martinez opposing the city's efforts.
According to the letter, "increased setbacks and additional restrictions . . . will devastate the vitality of the city of Los Angeles by: eliminating thousands of high-paying, middle-class jobs; costing the city tens of billions of dollars; relinquishing tens of millions of dollars in local tax revenues; raising the cost of living for all Angelenos; worsening the housing and homelessness crisis; and threatening the economy and the livelihoods of Angelenos by increasing dependence on unreliable foreign sources of oil."
Several people called into the City Council meeting Wednesday to voice their support for an end to neighborhood oil drilling ahead of the vote.
Many community groups have lobbied Los Angeles to stop oil drilling, citing the harms it has on communities, which are disproportionately felt in working-class communities and communities of color.
"Communities in L.A. have demanded an end to urban oil drilling and for years have been denied," said Food & Water Watch Senior Organizer Jasmin Vargas.
"But with the passage of this motion, Los Angeles has the opportunity to create a pathway to clean energy with a just transition for oil workers. Climate action like this can and should be replicated across the state. I hope Gov. (Gavin) Newsom is watching."
Victory! For more than a decade, frontline communities w/ @STAND_LA have been saying #NoDrillingWhereWereLiving. Today’s city council Unanimous vote to phase out oil drilling in LA is historic & testament to the persistence of communities who refused to be silent or ignored.— Ashley Hernandez (@Aleyvette) January 26, 2022
Newsom proposed new rules on Oct. 21, under which new oil wells or drilling facilities in California would have to be at least 3,200 feet from homes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other "sensitive locations." Newsom cited the impacts drilling's toxic chemicals have on communities, including asthma and birth defects. The proposal is undergoing an economic analysis and public comment before taking effect. The governor has also called for a statewide phase-out of oil extraction by 2045.
A USC study published on April 15 linked living by urban oil wells with wheezing and reduced lung function, symptoms disproportionately borne by people of color in Los Angeles.
In some cases, the respiratory harm rivals that of daily exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke or living beside highways spewing auto exhaust, the researchers found.
The study focused on drilling sites in two South L.A. neighborhoods, Jefferson Park and North University Park, yet could have implications elsewhere in the region. About one-third of L.A. County residents live less than one mile from an active drilling site—and some live as close as 60 feet.
"Oil and gas extraction occurs in densely populated neighborhoods next to where residents live and go to school," said researcher Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. "In this community-driven research, we found that living close to oil sites is associated with lower lung function. These results persist across ages, sex and racial/ethnic groups."