Los Angeles Moves Closer to Forcing Oil & Gas Drillers Out of City

Residents walk by the AllenCo Energy drill site in South Los Angeles, which has been inactive for nearly five years. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — After a lengthy legal analysis and at least one threat of a lawsuit, Los Angeles will consider a ban on all oil drilling within the city limits.

Environmental advocacy groups say the proposal — made during a committee meeting Tuesday — to consider a zoning update that would ban oil drilling is a big victory for people who live near drill sites and signals that LA is prepared to phase out fossil fuel use in the next few decades.

“I think we all probably want to be on board with the idea of separating oil and gas production from human beings who are living their lives in neighborhoods,” said LA City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who asked the city attorney’s office to draft an zoning update on oil drilling.

The road to that decision has been steeped in health issues for residents.

For decades, residents in low-income communities exposed to harmful chemicals have demanded the city update zoning codes to address oil drill sites next to homes, schools, parks and churches.

Problem oil operators have been allowed to renew their permits without much oversight by city officials according to environmental groups, leading to severe health issues for generations of Angelenos.

LA is crisscrossed with active, abandoned and plugged wells. Among 26 oil and gas fields lie roughly 819 active, 296 idle, 3,181 plugged, and 933 buried wells according to the city.

In 2017, the City Council asked for a report on updating those outdated zoning codes. This past summer, the city’s petroleum administrator recommended several avenues to reduce the toxic air that so many breathe, including a possible 600-foot setback or buffer around existing oil sites and a 1,500-foot buffer for any new drill sites.

In such a densely populated city, buffers could mean the oil and gas operators would essentially be forced out of neighborhoods.

But a major caveat lies in the costs.

Setbacks could cost the city at least $724 million in anticipated litigation, lost oil production, abandoned wells, cleanup costs and other factors. Meanwhile, the possible taking of mineral rights from owners could cost the city between $1.2 billion to $97.6 billion, according to the petroleum administrator’s report.

More than a year after the City Council asked the city attorney’s office to come back with a legal roadmap to update the zoning code, councilmembers shared their thoughts following a briefing on the confidential legal analysis.

“I have become satisfied we would not be exposed to a budgetary impact,” said Krekorian. “I would be prepared to move forward today with an instruction to the city attorney to not just create a buffer zone but to make oil and gas extraction in the city of Los Angeles in all zones a nonconforming use.”

Krekorian said he received a call from an oil industry official who threatened to sue the city if it moved ahead with any changes to the zoning codes, but did not specify what part of the industry they represented.

City Council president Nury Martinez asked if the committee could move ahead with its proposal given the threat of a lawsuit, but a representative from the city attorney’s office said there was no problem moving forward at this time.

A spokesperson for Krekorian’s office said if an oil drilling or gas extraction site is deemed noncompliant the operators would have up to 20 years to cease operation.

There have been no set dates for when the full City Council will vote on whether the city attorney’s office should draft the zoning ordinance update.

Before the proposal was made, environmental advocates called in to the committee hearing to ask the city to do more about the harmful chemicals that come from oil drill sites. On the other side, oil industry workers said the city would endanger their jobs if it made any changes, which could hurt their livelihoods during the pandemic.

“Our industry is in the crosshairs, but everyone uses our energy,” said Mike Costigan from electrician union IBEW Local 11. “Please consider our working families.”

But Lisa Hart from the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance said it was sad that this is being framed as an anti-job effort.

“I understand that these are well-paying jobs but do they serve your children’s and your community’s interest? Labor unions are being co-opted by the oil industry,” said Hart.

It’s unclear when the zoning code update will take place and what the city will do next, but to environmentalists who have fought for buffer zones to protect residents the city’s latest move marks a huge turning point.

“We’re not over the finish line, but we’re closer than ever,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility, after the committee meeting.

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