Meet the Frackers, Los Angeles

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here's a pair of portraits of Los Angeles with an old and new story to tell:

Oil production in the current L.A. neighborhoods of Hancock Park (1920s) and Venice Beach (1930s).
Oil production in the current L.A. neighborhoods of Hancock Park (1920s) and Venice Beach (1930s). | Photos: Rachel Samuels via wall photo at the Page Museum (left), USC Libraries, California Historical Society (right)

The days of the gushers are over -- but fracking, acidization, horizontal drilling, and other recent "enhanced recovery techniques" are giving new life to old L.A. oilfields. Unfortunately, some of the major impacts of these techniques include toxic, carcinogenic, and radioactive pollution, increased earthquake risks, and accelerating climate change. At a recent forum hosted at UCLA by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled "Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking," Angela Johnson Meszaros of Physicians for Social Responsibility explained why L.A.'s future may be heading back towards the 1920s -- and why we should be worried:


Producer, Rachel Samuels; Cinematographer, Sharon Meir; Co-Producer, Miranda Thompson; Title Graphic, Lawrence Azerrad

After the last oil boom, real estate boomed in L.A. -- with whole neighborhoods built on top of oil fields that were considered played out. But what happens now, when new techniques mean that huge amounts of black gold can once again be recovered? What are the risks -- to health, to the environment, to property? What kind of regulation do we need to protect the people living next door? These questions urgently need answers; the oil industry is moving forward much faster than science and public awareness.

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Here's a map of the oil wells under Los Angeles today, which you can explore to find the well next door to you:


That large blob of black dots right under Culver City is the Inglewood oilfield, the largest urban oilfield in the U.S. You may have passed it on La Cienega on your way to the airport, and vaguely wondered at its strange landscape of bobbing pump jacks which seemed frozen in time. Well, they are frozen no more.

After years of declining production which culminated in plans being drawn up in the 1990s to shut down the oilfield and turn it into the Central Park of South L.A., things have really turned around in the past ten years.
Just this May, Plains Exploration & Production, operator of the Inglewood oilfield, was acquired by mining giant Freeport McMoRan, for $16.3 billion dollars.

Freeport McMoRan is probably not your ideal new neighbor. As owners of the largest gold mine in the world, in Indonesia, they have a long history of environmental, human rights, and political corruption scandals, as summarized by the New York Times. By dumping up to 700,000 tons of toxic waste each day into nearby rivers, their Grasberg mine has devastated the local ecosystem.

They brought this same attitude of disregard for the environment and public health to their recent U.S. operations as well, successfully lobbying in New Mexico to exempt their copper mines from water quality standards.

In 2012 they were nominated "Worst Corporation on Earth" in the Public Eye Awards in Davos. This video was produced for the awards:

Freeport will operate not only the Inglewood oilfield, but many other wells throughout Los Angeles. The 61 active wells that are under the Beverly Center are theirs. The 58 active wells at Pico and Spaulding. Elsewhere in Southern California, they also will be at the helm of major oilfields across the San Joaquin Valley -- which has become California's new fracking epicenter. According to industry self-reporting on the website Fracfocus.org, 928 wells in Kern county have been hydraulically fracked since 2011.

Meet the frackers. And the acidizers, the steam injectors, and the horizontal drillers. With Saudi-Arabia scale oil resources trapped in the Monterey shale, this is just the beginning of California's extreme energy ka-boom.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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