In Ruth Andrade’s South Los Angeles neighborhood, oil derricks and pump jacks seen from backyards or apartment windows are a fact of life.
For years, Andrade and her neighbors who live in the craftsman homes and apartments that sit close to such properties didn’t know why there was a smell of rotten eggs in the air. It was unclear why children suffered nose bleeds, and teenagers and parents complained of headaches.
When Andrade learned that the chemicals used to draw oil from deep down into the earth could be harmful, she was told it was too hard to fight those responsible. Los Angeles is the second-largest oil-producing county in California, but it’s first when it comes to urban drilling. More than 5,000 wells sit in the city of Los Angeles alone. About a fifth of those are either active or idle. Big Oil companies that extract petroleum on just a few acres of land in densely populated neighborhoods of the city produce more than just product. They also offer much-needed jobs, she was warned.
“It’s very difficult to close them because it costs money,” Andrade, a 47-year-old mother of three children, said of what she was told about the oil production sites.
It’s a narrative that made residents like Andrade stand back until a few years ago. That’s when she and others came together with STAND-L.A., a coalition of area faith leaders and advocacy groups. They voluntarily knocked on neighbors’ doors, gathered data about health problems such as nose bleeds, cancer and miscarriages, and empowered each other with information. Their movement rose until little by little, Andrade and others in her community were seen by those who could change the laws. Two recent developments may help Andrade and those who have worked with her for years.
We want children to go outside .... We want to breathe clean air, to drink clean water. We want this to change, not just for Los Angeles, but all of California.Ruth Andrade, mother
Recently, two Los Angeles City Council members proposed adding a measure to the November 2022 ballot to tax oil companies that are extracting oil and gas in the city.
That proposal comes on the heels of action taken in December last year, when city officials said they would consider a proposal that re-examines zoning laws that, over time, would prohibit oil drilling within the city’s borders. The proposed ordinance would look into how the city can legally deem oil sites as non-conforming land use.
“There had been a number of (victories) along the way, but what happened (in December), when (city officials) heard the report from the city attorney on how they had the legal right (to stop oil drilling), that was the moment when we saw all the work we’ve done come to a head,” said Martha Dina Argüello, an activist and executive director for the Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, one of the organizations that are part of STAND-L.A.
For Argüello and the groups she worked with, the proposed ordinance, to be discussed sometime this year, marks a long-sought-after victory in what many deemed a David and Goliath-like battle.
“The shift is undeniable,” Argüello added. “We had moments when we were really building momentum. We never gave up. We’ve been relentless.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who sits on the Energy, Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee and who introduced both motions, said a confidential report by the city attorney offered a way to ban oil drilling that wouldn’t bring the burden of litigation on taxpayers.
“This discussion with oil extraction in Los Angeles has been an ongoing discussion for many, many years,” Krekorian said. “Certainly, it’s intensive as we’ve become a more populated city.”
He said the impacts on health continue to be a great concern, especially when it comes to water and air quality in relation to oil production.
“Given the fact that we know this is an environmental and health concern, and given the fact that the situation is not going to change with regard to demand for housing and expansion of density, this should be the time, when we say (a drilling site) is no longer compatible.”
Krekorian knows there will be other concerns. During a recent committee public hearing, those who spoke against such a proposal included workers in oil production, as well as union representatives and members of other organizations. They said any changes to an already highly regulated industry would cut oil production jobs. Speakers also objected to proposed buffer zones between homes and drill sites, a measure STAND-L.A. had been working on for years as well.
“Naturally, when people come before the council and describe the impact on how action we take will impact their families, how their jobs will be lost ... that is very compelling,” Krekorian said. “I take that very seriously.”
But he said his proposal would give the industry enough time to adapt so that owners would not lose investments and workers can be retrained for jobs in cleaner technology.
“Nobody’s going to lose their job in a year or three years,” he said. “It’s going to take time to do this.”
Krekorian said the goal is to bring in a consultant to help the city proceed with a transition of shutdowns over time.
If the ordinance passes, the city will continue to press all federal, state and regional regulatory agencies for better oversight of operation, health and safety, Krekorian said. The city’s own regulatory departments, including the Office of the Petroleum Administrator, must also ensure strict compliance with all applicable laws, he added.
More than 55,000 people work in the state’s oil and gas production industry, according to the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents 70% of all production companies statewide. On its website, the association states that the industry works under the strictest environmental standards in the world and generates “$1.7 billion in state and local tax revenues to fund schools, social services, and public safety in the communities where they live and work.”
The (petroleum) industry has united in challenges in both the courtroom and at the ballot box, knowing these threats could be replicated by local and state governments.Rock Zierman, California Independent Petroleum Association CEO
But in a Los Angeles County report released in 2018, public health inspectors noted that regulations to protect residents appeared to be skirted.
“In both investigations, (Department of Public Health) responded to resident health complaints of headaches, nausea, vomiting, respiratory irritation, and eye, nose and throat irritation,” according to the county report. “Such impacts often warrant immediate action to protect health. These two neighborhood health investigations revealed insufficient regulatory oversight and inadequate mitigation measures to reduce exposures and associated impacts in the adjoining community.”
While oil and gas production in Los Angeles County occurs in both rural and urban areas, it affects low-income communities most, the report’s authors noted.
“The potential public health impacts of oil and gas sites located in densely populated areas are concerning, particularly to those who experience disproportionate economic and health inequities,” authors of the county report concluded.
California had been the third-largest oil-producing state in the nation for decades, but that distinction was lost just a few years ago. It has since fallen to rank as the seventh-largest oil-producing state in the country. The state produced 442,000 barrels of oil per day in 2019, a decline compared to five years before when 561,000 barrels per day were produced. But oil demand has remained the same because the population keeps growing, according to the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA).
In a recent newsletter to members, CIPA CEO Rock Zierman said proposals to revoke permits to halt oil production are being proposed across California. But the association will be ready to defend the industry, he added.
“Several cities and counties are considering policies including amortization (phasing out production over time by revoking duly issued permits), requiring extra bureaucratic permitting hoops only for the oil and natural gas industry, and changing land-use laws through General Plan Updates,” he wrote in the Dec. 10, 2020 newsletter. “The industry has united in challenges in both the courtroom and at the ballot box, knowing these threats could be replicated by local and state governments.”
Even so, the measures won by residents and advocacy groups are significant because they raise awareness about oil drilling in urban areas and the health effects in Los Angeles’ densely populated neighborhoods, said Edward Walker, a professor with the Department of Sociology at UCLA. Walker has studied social movements and has researched the politics of hydraulic fracturing.
“It has a lot to do with the strength of organizations and what you’re able to build with partnerships and allies,” he said of how such local activism can become successful.
Such victories by STAND-L.A. require hard work, along with being in the right place at the right time, he added. Walker also said such movements that include an emphasis and evidence on adverse health effects are more likely to gain attention.
“The concern about health equity has been a big part of these broader movements for some time now,” he said. Some examples include the rising awareness of infant mortality rates among Black women and high childhood asthma among people of color.
Andrade, who lives near the still-active Jefferson drill site in South Los Angeles, said she began collecting data and evidence of illnesses by knocking on her neighbors’ doors. She heard stories of women who had miscarriages, children and elders who suffered from nausea and eye irritations and even of pets that had cancer. Now a community organizer at Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), Andrade is also an air quality ambassador of South L.A. for Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. She said while she’s encouraged by the progress made so far by STAND-L.A., she’ll continue to work with groups to raise awareness of the importance of clean air and water in her neighborhood and beyond.
“We want children to go outside,” she said. “We want to breathe clean air, to drink clean water. We want this to change, not just for Los Angeles, but all of California.”
Argüello, who went to school near oil production sites and suffered from headaches as a youth, said her organization would grasp onto the momentum they’ve helped build to continue breaking down the power structures that place people’s health at risk. That includes looking closely into racism, which has recently been deemed a public health crisis.
“There is a growing understanding that race and racism is really shaping our health in a very negative way,” Argüello said. “What this movement has taught us is we need to change everything.”