At the corner of West Pico Blvd. and South Genesee Ave. in west Los Angeles sits a tan, six-story building. It’s nothing much to look at: It’s set back from the street by a manicured lawn, lined by a row of trees on each side. An American flag flies out front.
At a quick glance, it appears no different from any other office building; it looks like it could be home to medical practitioners, accounting firms, or insurance agencies. But sit outside of it for long enough, and you won’t spot many white collar workers coming in or out. Nor would you catch glance of any workers through office windows. That’s because the windows on this building are fake. In fact, the whole building is a facade; its top is open and inside of it is an active oil well site operated by Freeport-McRoran that produces thousands of barrels of oil per year.
The Packard Drill Site is one of a number of locations throughout the city where oil and gas wells sit immediately next door to homes and offices, hidden in plain sight from Angelenos. The city is home to an estimated 1,071 urban oil wells that operate in relative secrecy behind tall fences or other clandestine structures, though only a handful are concealed from public view as elaborately as the Packard Drill Site. Just more than 70% of them sit mere feet from hospitals, daycare centers, schools, or homes.
All told, an estimated 580,000 Los Angeles County residents live less than a quarter of a mile from a drill site. Many of these structures are difficult for the average person to recognize if they’re not looking, and Niki Wong, founding member of the Standing Together Against Neighborhood Drilling – Los Angeles (STAND-LA) coalition, said she believes this is intentional on the part of the oil and gas industry.
“People really don’t know,” Wong said. “Either people know about it because they’ve lived there long enough, and they can’t afford to leave. There are lots of people I also meet who have lived there for years, but had no idea [something] was a drilling site because of its immaculately manicured lawn.”
As the health impacts from oil and gas drilling become clearer, the push to disclose drilling sites, set up wider buffer zones, and ultimately, shut them down has gained urgency. Los Angeles—and California at-large—is one of the epicenters of a growing movement to protect public health from the oil fields lurking in people’s backyards.
The problem of oil and gas operations situated near people’s homes and essential infrastructure isn’t limited to Los Angeles alone. An April analysis by investigative non-profit FracTracker Alliance found that, at the time of writing, 9,835 active oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500 feet (762 meters) of “sensitive receptors” like hospitals, schools, and homes across the state of California, representing 13.1% of all wells in the state. On top of that, 298 newly-permitted wells not yet in production fell within the same range, as did 6,558 idle wells, defined as those that haven’t been used in two years but remain unplugged, and can leak toxins and explosive gases into their surrounding environments.
Secret oil drilling in a dense urban environment like Los Angeles and throughout the state of California comes with high costs. Those who live or work near extraction sites are exposed to carcinogenic air pollutants. Headaches; noise pollution-related sleep deprivation; cardiovascular disease; skin conditions; spontaneous preterm births and other reproductive issues; and respiratory illnesses like asthma are all correlated with proximity to oil and gas drilling.
According to existing scientific literature on the health consequences of proximity to oil and gas activity, symptoms like throat irritation and sinus problems have been found to occur at just 500 feet (152 meters) from extraction sites; severe headaches are proven to pop up within 1,500 feet (457 meters), and reproductive issues like spontaneous preterm birth can take place within up to 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) of activity.
FracTracker created an interactive map for Earther showing the setback distances tied to public health issues for oil and gas wells across California. Think you may live, work, or send your kids to school near oil and gas infrastructure? Search the map to find out.
Wong, who authored a comprehensive literature review on the health impacts of living near oil and gas infrastructure for STAND-LA in 2017, said the studies she’s read are mostly focused in rural areas, like Pennsylvania or Colorado, which afford more space between infrastructure and oil and gas facilities.
“So, you can only imagine the impact in Los Angeles, California would be magnitudes greater because of the population density,” she said.
To make matters worse, these burdens are not shouldered equally across the city or the state: California’s oil and gas infrastructure is clustered in areas that are predominantly low-income and home to immigrants and communities of color. In Kern County, the region responsible for around 70% of the state’s oil located approximately 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of Los Angeles, 64% of residents living within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of oil and gas wells are Hispanic or Latinx, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates.
And in Los Angeles, drilling sites in South Los Angeles and Wilmington—both predominantly Latinx neighborhoods—are on average 260 to 300 feet (79 to 91 meters) closer to homes than those in the wealthier neighborhoods of West Los Angeles and Wilshire and are more loosely regulated on the whole. South Los Angeles has some of the worst air pollution and highest asthma rates in the county as a result.
Wong noted that oil and gas facilities are also treated disparately between neighborhoods in the city. In fact, in 2015, a coalition of environmental justice groups sued the city for racial discrimation in its oil permitting and regulation processes, citing geographic differences in equipment use and soundproofing requirements that reduce emissions and noise pollution, among other things. (The case settled in 2019 and the city and Department of City Planning agreed to implement the non-profits’ requested requirements for drilling applications across the city.)
A recent piece of legislation would’ve protected vulnerable communities in and well beyond Los Angeles, however. The result of nearly two years of organizing between environmental justice groups from all over the state, Assembly Bill 345 (AB345) called for the nation’s first statewide 2,500-foot (762-meter) minimum setback between oil and gas facilities and “sensitive receptors,” like hospitals, schools, homes, and daycare centers. The bill would’ve led to a phase out of 16,690 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells across the state, FracTracker’s April Analysis found. It would’ve protected approximately 860,000 Californians from the adverse health consequences of living or working near oil and gas activity. Maps produced by FracTracker for Earther show that in California’s oil and gas hubs, like Arvin, Shafter, Long Beach, Wilmington, and Lost Hills, a 2,500-foot setback would cover a substantial amount of ground.
But after passing in the state assembly, AB345 was struck down on Aug. 5 by a vote of three-to-two in the state senate Committee on Natural Resources, with Democratic state Senator Ben Hueso calling it a “waste of time” and a “publicity stunt” by environmental justice groups.
“It was a very disappointing hearing,” Kobi Naseck, coordinator for the Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods Coalition at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said. “The next disappointing bit was to hear Senator Hueso and (fellow Democratic) Senator Robert Hertzberg go on the stand and actively advocate against the bill.”
Naseck said the senate hearing was set up to lead to failure; in his view, advocates for the bill weren’t given equal floor time as opponents before a vote was called in favor of moving onto covid-19 related legislation on the docket. The three senators who voted against the bill received a total of $142,206 in donations from oil and gas corporations, Elk Grove News reported in September. A recent Jacobin analysis found similar evidence of a long history of donations by oil industry groups to the senators who voted against AB345 that day.
But Naseck remains firm that setback legislation is still a possibility for his state if implemented on the local level. He points to a recent poll by Change Research and the California Environmental Justice Alliance Action indicating that 79% of Californians are in favor of implementing health and safety buffer zones. This rate is even higher in the states’ largest oil-producing regions: Los Angeles County and the Central Valley saw overall support rates of 81% and 84%.
“That support has even gotten stronger during COVID-19,” Naseck said. “The fact is that people want setbacks. And people are finally waking up to the dangers of having fossil fuel in their backyards, in their school playgrounds and near where they live, work and get health care.”
And if a recent environmental justice victory in Ventura County, California, is any indication, Naseck is right: Just a few weeks after the death of AB345, Ventura County, the state’s third largest oil-producing region, passed the nation’s first 2,500-foot setback at the local level. Part of the county’s vicennial general plan, the setback rule will protect more than 8,000 residents (60% of them Latinx) who live within 2,500 feet of an oil well from harmful air pollutants, according to the Sierra Club. The setback legislation passed by a vote of three to two.
As Central Coast organizing manager at the Food and Water Watch, Tomas Rebecchi said the legislative victory was the result of a nearly three-year battle in the region, which has its own “long history of environmental racism.”
It all started in 2017, when an oil company was attempting to install four new oil wells in the area without passing an environmental impact review. Concerned, Rebecchi got to work collecting petition signatures and rallying groups to attend board hearings. In September 2019, the Board of Supervisors denied the application for the wells. It was the first time in the county’s 100-year drilling history that an application for oil infrastructure had been denied, Rebecchi said.
“It was mostly because of the huge opposition that we organized,” he added.
Rebecchi and his colleagues rode this momentum and turned it into a new fight for setbacks in 2019, as the county’s Board of Supervisors geared up to rewrite its general plan. Ironically, it was momentum around AB345 that helped advocates garner support locally, Rebecchi said.
“We were kind of painting the picture, like, ‘hey this is going to become a law of the land soon and if you approve these oil wells and all of a sudden next year AB345 is in place, you’ve locked residents into decades of pollution,” he said.
Though Rebecchi felt that the state bill’s death was a “gut punch,” he believes achieving a local victory soon after was the boost he and many others across the state needed to continue.
“It was a long three years,” Rebecchi said. “It was nail biters, long 14-hour hearings. But yeah, it feels good.”
He hopes the win will inspire organizers and politicians in other parts of California to follow suit, and he has reason to be hopeful: The council of Culver City, California, moved in a similar direction by voting in August to phase out extraction in its 78 acres of the Inglewood Oil Field, the nation’s largest urban oilfield.
Meanwhile, Colorado recently confirmed a statewide setback of 2,000 feet (610 meters), the largest statewide buffer zone rule in the nation. (Dallas has a municipal requirement of 1,500 feet [457 meters], but no other state has implemented one to the scale of what Colorado just passed.)
And groups in Los Angeles have continued to push for a city-specific setback of 2,500 feet, which would protect the health of over a half-million residents. And after six years of campaigning, they’re finally seeing signs of progress: On Dec. 1, the Los Angeles City Council’s Environment, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice Committee voted unanimously in support of a motion to draft an ordinance to phase out oil and gas drilling entirely. Organizers say the phaseout is slated to be confirmed by the city council in January, and would require oil and gas companies to cap existing wells while preventing them from building any new ones over a period of time that’s still up for discussion. The motion still needs to be approved by the full city council, but organizers in the city say it’s a broader step toward progress than a setback rule alone would be.
“Today the long-ignored public health concerns of residents were heard: No more drilling where we are living,” Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles (PSR-LA) said in a statement.
Arguello told Earther in September that implementing setbacks as a phaseout mechanism in an oil-heavy, dense urban environment like Los Angeles would be a sign that legislators take the needs of vulnerable communities seriously. She’s inspired by progress in other parts of the country.
Arguello said she’s felt even more motivated to move by recent catastrophes in her city; an unprecedented wildfire season made her, like many others, nervous about the looming threat of the climate crisis. But she’s ready to continue fighting for a just transition away from fossil fuels, and sees setback laws as a key part of this.
“LA is a city of transformation, and we were built on oil, real estate, and entertainment,” she said. “And we can actually now have an economy that leaves oil in the ground, figures out how to make energy affordable for low income people, and protect the workers at those sites. That’s revolutionary.”
Audrey Carleton is a freelance environmental journalist and producer based in Brooklyn.
Correction, 12/30/20, 5:07 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that there are 16,690 active and newly permitted oil and gas wells across the state that would have been phased out by AB345, including 298 permitted wells not in production yet that would have been affected.