Why the Most Populous US County Just Ended Oil and Gas Drilling
L.A. County's plan to phase out drilling comes after a years-long environmental justice movement focused on adverse health effects. Advocates hope it will be a model elsewhere.
Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously recently to phase out oil and gas drilling in unincorporated parts of the nation’s most populous county in what advocates hailed as a victory in a years-long movement for environmental justice. But thousands of derricks within city limits are unaffected by the new ordinance, and advocates say the fight is ongoing, with hopes that the vote will be a model for other places.
“This decision is a huge deal because it can potentially impact a very large number of people,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental health scientist at the University of Berkeley, “and can also influence a statewide conversation about the regulation of upstream oil and gas production in California.”
Led by County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who represents large portions of central and south Los Angeles, the motion sets the county on a path to shutter the roughly 1,600 active and idle oil and gas wells that span its unincorporated communities. Drilling the vast oil fields that sit below Los Angeles was the city’s first big industry. By the 1920s and 1930s, extraction was so prolific that the Los Angeles Times compared the rigs dotting the Santa Monica Bay to “trees in a forest.”
But concerns around health and safety—as well as economic change for prime coastal and center-city real estate—pushed a lot of extraction equipment out of sight, said Jill Johnston, a professor at the University of Southern California who researches the health effects of urban drilling. Sometimes, that meant hiding rigs beneath hedges or inside buildings and towers, as spotted in Beverly Hills and Mid-City. Over time, visible, open drilling tended to cluster in poorer neighborhoods of color, where residents have for years experienced health issues such as headaches, nosebleeds, breathing problems, and potentially higher cancer risks because of the toxic air emissions (e.g., benzene and formaldehyde) that regularly escape from both active and idle wells—not to mention the noise pollution that comes with active drilling.