Los Angeles is finally turning the page on the city’s oil-coated past. In unanimously approved measures, the Los Angeles City Council voted in favor of banning new oil and gas wells and outlined a plan to phase out those already existing over five years.
The vote marks a huge victory after activists waged a years-long effort to get the city to clean up its act. It will provide a huge benefit to communities of color that often live in the shadow of the city’s most polluting sites. The approved measures will see the city draft ordinances to prohibit new oil and gas extraction, hire experts to analyze how to phase out remaining wells throughout the city, and create a framework for plugging wells left abandoned.
“This is a momentous step forward for Los Angeles, and a clear message we are sending to Big Oil,’’ Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who’s also the chair of the City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and River committee, said in a statement. “These actions are critical to our ambitious ‘LA100' efforts, which will achieve 100% carbon-free energy in Los Angeles by 2035.”
The decision came as welcome news to Los Angeles activists who have raised the alarm about oil wells hidden throughout the city for years. The wells are a public health ill. People and families living near extraction sites are regularly exposed to air pollution that is correlated with everything from headaches and skin conditions to spontaneous preterm births and respiratory illness.
“Starting today, I have a little bit more hope for our communities,” Ashley Hernandez, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, told the Associated Press. “Our futures will hopefully not be full of emergency room visits, bloody noses, or burdensome health impacts, but a cleaner future where black and brown families are the ones protected and valued.”
Big Oil is, perhaps not surprisingly, big mad about the new laws. The California Independent Petroleum Association, a group representing more than 400 oil and gas entities, sent a letter to NBC Los Angeles in which it claimed the new efforts would “devastate the viability of the city of Los Angeles; and eliminate thousands of jobs. This is despite the fact that the approved ordinance will develop a jobs program to help transition some of these workers to other industries. Plugging abandoned wells could also be a prime source of employment for oil and gas workers as the world winds the industry down while also generating billions in public health and climate benefits.
In an interview with the AP though, CIPA CEO Rock Zierma went as far as to call the city’s new measures illegal.
“Taking someone’s property without compensation, particularly one which is duly permitted and highly regulated, is illegal and violates the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment against illegal search and seizure,” Zierman said.
Los Angeles has a long history of oil production. That legacy lives on in the well sites scattered across even busy parts of the city, including some hidden behind building facades. As of 2021, the city was still home to around 1,000 wells. With the new ordinance, those wells will be relegated to history and residents will be able to breathe a little easier.