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LA moves to ban oil drilling within city limits

The discovery of oil in the 1890s played as big a role in building Los Angeles as Hollywood. But its time in the spotlight is ending.

(CN) — The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to ban new oil and gas wells and begin the process of phasing out all wells and refineries within city limits over the next 20 years.

"Today is the day that we end oil and gas drilling in the city of Los Angeles," City Councilman Paul Krekorian said at a press conference before the vote. "Today is the day we stand up for families and stand against the oil and gas industry and its profit motivations."

LA has 704 active oil wells, some of them hidden behind facades of fake office buildings. Others lie in plain site near homes, schools, parks, churches and in restaurant parking lots. According to the group Stand LA, 580,000 Angelenos live within a quarter of a mile of an active well, and there are 130 schools within a half-mile of an active well. The city also has 1,335 idle wells, and countless others that have been closed up or capped, in various states of compliance with environmental law.

Studies have suggested that living near an oil well can cause a host of negative health effects, including adverse birth outcomes, respiratory diseases and even higher rates of cancer. Residents living near drilling operations have complained about headaches, nose bleeds and skin irritation. And that's when everything works like it's supposed to. In 2015, a gas leak in Aliso Canyon, near the Porter Ranch neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, released over 107,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere, one of the worst natural gas leaks in U.S. history. Numerous school children received treatment for severe nosebleeds.

"Toxic industrial operations have absolutely no place in our neighborhoods, period," said Councilman Paul Koretz at the press conference. "No one should have to wake up in their own bed with nosebleeds caused by oil-drilling chemicals."

More than half the city's active oil wells are located in Wilmington, a low-income neighborhood at the southern tip of the city bordering Long Beach. But there are also more than 100 wells in the center of the city, drawing from Salt Lake Oil Field, which sits above a highly affluent area spanning parts of Beverly Hills and Hancock Park. Half those wells sit in the shadow of the Beverly Center, an iconic indoor shopping mall.

Oil was discovered in Los Angeles in the 1890s, and extraction played an integral role in the city's early growth. Streets are still named after Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, prominent oilmen of the era. But the industry has long been declining. Though there are still some oil refineries in the city, much of the oil production has moved out of state. And there are only a few hundred people in the city who still work for drilling operations.

"This is an industry whose days are numbered in this city — with or without the actions of this council," Krekorian said during the City Council meeting.

Representatives of the oil and gas industry could not be reached for comment. When LA County passed a similar measure last year, industry spokespeople said the move would mean lost jobs and higher gas prices. City Council president Nury Martinez said she wants the oil well ban paired with a program to create new jobs, to offset those lost by the ban. As for effects of the ban on the price of gas, Krekorian called that notion "ludicrous" as LA produces a small fraction of the world's oil and gas.

The City Council's vote directs the city attorney to rewrite part of the municipal code concerning oil drilling and production. The council will then vote again to approve the law, which will declare oil and gas wells "a nonconforming use." That means oil wells will have 20 years at most to shut down completely.

Krekorian said some of the idle wells may shut down sooner, as may some of the wells that are becoming less profitable. Oil companies will be responsible for capping and cleaning up the wells, according to Krekorian.

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