Oil is at the center of our daily lives; it fuels our cars, powers our airplanes and is embedded in the plastics and other products we use day in and out. Its excavation is the stuff of tall tales, with "gushers" and boomtowns shaping our imagination. But many residents probably don't realize that Los Angeles rests on one of the largest urban oil fields in the country, and oil drilling remains an ongoing activity in the heart of many of our neighborhoods.
To the residents of the greater Baldwin Hills area, who see the pump jacks and drill rigs every day -- dotting the hillsides along La Cienega and Stocker -- urban oil extraction is a quotidian reality. The Inglewood Oil Field has been drilled since the 1920s, and communities grew up around the wells. But only in recent years have we begun to understand the serious effects drilling may have on public health.
In January 2006, noxious gases unexpectedly escaped from wells at the Inglewood Oil Field, causing widespread panic and some residents in adjacent communities, including Baldwin Hills, View Park and Blair Hills, to evacuate. Despite assurances from the oil company, Plains Exploration and Production Corp., or PXP, another blowout happened one month later.
The community was shaken -- and with good reason. Chemicals used in oil drilling have been linked to cancer and respiratory problems, and some homes are within a few hundred feet of an active well. It is not lost on residents here that in the Midwest and Northeast, drilling in deep deposits has led to contaminated groundwater. When the County investigated the PXP blowouts, what it found shocked everyone: few health or environmental safeguards were in place to protect nearby communities from the impacts of oil drilling. There were no noise regulations or mechanisms to survey air quality, and PXP was allowed to drill an unlimited number of wells, with no assessment of the cumulative public health and safety impacts.
Residents were outraged. The County held hearings and put some regulations in place, but they fell short of what the community wanted. As a result, environmentalists, health advocates, neighborhood groups and the City of Culver City filed suit.
In the fall of 2009, the parties sat down at the table to discuss what comprehensive safeguards and regulations should look like for the Inglewood Oil Field. Two years of tough negotiations ensued, but the hard work finally paid off this summer. All parties agreed on a set of common-sense measures intended to reduce the risk to public health, and the framework of the settlement should serve as a model for communities facing similar challenges.
PXP will drill fewer new wells, which translates to improved air quality and fewer emissions. It will conduct studies to see if wells can be drilled further away from sensitive areas such as schools, homes, and parks. It will examine and report on its potential use of "hydraulic fracking" -- the injection of chemicals at high pressure to extract more oil from deep deposits -- to see whether such activities would threaten groundwater quality, cause surface fissures or damage homes. PXP also will speed up landscaping plans to make the oil field less of an eyesore, help pay for a study to consolidate electrical lines in the field, and reduce its nighttime noise levels.
The county will play a critical role in enforcing the settlement. It will fund air quality monitoring at the perimeter of the oil field and require implementation of new "clean" technologies when technically feasible and commercially available. Also, the county will perform periodic community health studies, complete with an environmental justice component, and make them available to the public.
Although the settlement lays out straightforward mitigations the residents deserve, the work is far from over. Implementation will take years of hard work and follow-through, and the community should hold the County and PXP accountable for the commitments they've made.
Resolving the litigation provides an opportunity for the parties to look beyond the immediate public safety concerns and focus on larger policy initiatives. These include improving statewide standards for all oil fields in California (proposed Assembly Bill 591, which requires companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, is a good start), as well as building unique recreational opportunities such as the 13-mile Park to Playa multi-use trail that will connect Baldwin Hills to Santa Monica Bay.
To reach the settlement, residents, activists, government and yes, the oil company, were required to recognize the serious implications of urban drilling and to find common ground. It's not perfect, but there is no question that we are now on the path to securing the protections our communities fought for and deserve.
Joel R. Reynolds is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles and directs its Southern California program. Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and represents the Second District, which includes the communities of Baldwin Hills, View Park, Culver City.