Decisive Vote to Protect Communities from Oil Drilling in LA

Credit: Wray Sinclair for NRDC

As Angelenos look forward to cooler temperatures after the scorching climate-change-driven heat wave earlier this month, we may have more to celebrate beyond the cooler weather as Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles each make crucial decisions that can move us away from dirty fossil fuels.

Almost one year after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors made the historic decision to initiate the process of phasing out oil drilling on unincorporated County land, the Board is poised to adopt an ordinance that will protect County residents from the dangers associated with oil drilling. On September 27th, the Board will consider adopting an update to the County Oil Well Ordinance that would prohibit all new oil wells and production facilities and designate all existing oil wells and production facilities as nonconforming uses. 

Impacted residents and environmental justice, environmental, health, community and faith organizations, including NRDC, have long called for an end to neighborhood oil drilling throughout Los Angeles, citing a growing body of scientific literature that demonstrates the risks and dangers of allowing oil drilling near homes, schools, and other sensitive sites. With more than 5,000 active and idle oil wells across the County, and more than half a million county residents living within a half-mile of an active drill site, the Ordinance update will help reduce the negative effects associated with living near drill sites. As one of the co-authors of the Board’s far-reaching September 2021 motion, Supervisor Holly Mitchell, stated: “Tens of thousands of County residents live in close proximity to an oil well and nearly 73 percent of those residents are people of color.”

The proposed ordinance before the Board of Supervisors does not include the Inglewood Oil Field– the largest urban oil field in the country and home to the majority of wells in unincorporated LA County. However, once the proposed ordinance takes effect, the County has indicated that it will concurrently amend the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District, which imposes a unique and enhanced set of standards on oil and gas operations at the Inglewood Oil Field as a result of lawsuits by local community and environmental groups, including NRDC. While the Board’s adoption of the County Oil Well Ordinance is a necessary first step to phasing out oil operations throughout LA County, much work lies ahead to ensure that the existing wells in the Inglewood Oil Field are phased out on a similar timeline as the rest of the county.

In a separate but similarly promising development, the City of Los Angeles is undergoing its own process to also phase-out oil drilling. City planners have drafted an ordinance that would amend the Municipal Code to prohibit all new oil and gas drilling activities and make any existing extraction a nonconforming use in all zones of the City, pursuant to the unanimous motion passed by the City Council in January of this year. The proposed ordinance is being heard by the City Planning Commission today, September 22nd and is tentatively set to come back to the City Council for a full vote before the end of this year. 

The City ordinance as drafted is a much-needed step in the right direction and sets a strong foundation for reaching a solution that meets the needs of frontline communities and protects public health. However, the Planning Commission has a significant opportunity to improve the draft ordinance by clarifying language regarding the categorical prohibition on acid treatment work during the phase-out period, outlining the criteria that may justify an exception to the prohibition on new drilling and oil well maintenance activities, and strengthening remediation standards to prioritize the health and safety of communities throughout the phase-out process. In doing so, the Planning Commission’s actions can improve the lives of all Angelenos, particularly for fenceline communities who continue to unduly bear the toxic impacts associated with oil drilling. 

These momentous decisions for both Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles to phase-out oil drilling are a direct result of decades of grassroots organizing by impacted residents and advocates. NRDC is proud to work alongside and in partnership with the environmental and social justice organizations, including the STAND-LA coalition, who have been fighting tirelessly for the health and safety of all County and City residents.  The bold leadership of frontline advocates and our courageous elected officials here in Los Angeles is spearheading an important step in the transition away from dirty fossil fuels to a cleaner energy future.

About the Authors

Paulina Torres

Staff Attorney, Nature Program

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