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Oil and gas wells are now banned in Los Angeles
The city of Los Angeles has banned the drilling of new fossil fuel wells, a decision that has been hailed as a victory for underprivileged communities.
A Los Angeles ban on oil and gas wells became a reality on Friday, 2 December 2022, when the local City Council voted unanimously to ban new oil and gas wells and phase out existing ones. This ban is a victory made possible by the work of frontline communities.
L.A.’s history with oil drilling
California as a whole has a long history of oil drilling. It was 1892 when the first oil well was drilled in Los Angeles in the Echo Park neighbourhood in the east-central part of the city. About 40 years later, this U.S. state produced about one-quarter of the world’s oil output. These days California is one of the five U.S. states, along with Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, where one million or more people live within 1,600 meters of a well.
Communities of colour face disproportionately high exposure to oil and gas wells due to racist housing policies. A 2022 study researching historic redlining in the United States has found that neighbourhoods with worse HOLC grades were associated with exposure to successively more wells located inside or nearby the neighbourhood limits. According to this study, Los Angeles had the most wells within 100 m of the boundaries of HOLC-graded neighbourhoods.
The health impacts of oil drilling
Oil reservoirs are found below the surface of land and oceans, where thermogenic breakdown transformed organic material, such as dead algae and bacteria, into liquid hydrocarbons. As the oil is trapped in these sedimentary underground rock formations, it is extracted through drilling, which is part of the upstream phase of oil production. In 2018, The United States became the largest crude oil producer and kept this position through 2021.
With about 808,485 active oil wells in its continental landmass, an estimated 17.6 million U.S. residents live within 1,600 meters of an active oil extraction site, about 6 per cent of the conterminous U.S. population.
The heavy presence of oil wells takes its toll on public health in the US, with evidence suggesting impacts ranging from cancer and neurological symptoms to liver damage and immunodeficiency. These wells contaminate the air around them, emitting harmful pollution. A 14-year-long air quality analysis conducted by Stanford researchers in California and published in 2021 revealed higher levels of air pollutants within 2.5 miles of oil and gas wells.
A Victory for Environmental Justice
Los Angeles’s ban on oil and gas wells came about three months after Senate Bill 1137 was signed into law on September 16, 2022. On August 31, 2022, Californian Senators voted 25-10 to advance SB 1137 (Gonzalez, Limon). This setback bill will prevent new permits for oil and gas drilling within a 1-kilometre comprehensive health and safety zone, creating buffer zones around places such as homes, schools, and parks from January 1, 2023.
This ordinance is a victory for frontline communities, for environmental justice, for cleaner air and our climate, and for the entire City’s health. However, it is also clear that this single ordinance will not fix the systemic racism that is embedded into our City’s laws.
STAND-L.A., an environmental justice coalition of community groups seeking to end neighbourhood drilling in Los Angeles, celebrated the ban as a victory for local communities but reminded us that there is still much work to be done to combat racial injustice in the Californian city.
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