During the suddenly rainy last week in February, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban fracking within city limits. It might have seemed like an academic exercise, just as it did a few years ago, when the five-person city council of Beverly Hills, Calif., voted four to one to quash the city’s oil industry altogether. Beverly Hills, after all, is the place Jed Clampett went to squander the profits from his Tennessee petroleum, not to look for more. Who drills for oil in Los Angeles?
As it turns out, among the photographs that line the walls at City Hall, says David Graham-Caso, environmental advisor to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, “it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have oil derricks in it.” Both Beverly Hills and the City of Los Angeles were, quite literally, built on oil, in some places virtually on top of the pits of viscous bitumen that during the Pleistocene ensnared mastadons, llamas and mammoths along with the dire wolves who came to feed on their misery. When you cross the grounds at Los Angeles’s Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, which houses those doomed animals' fossils, you have to watch your step: Many a shoe has been ruined by an incautious plunge into an asphalt seep.
Actual oil operations are harder to find these days, which doesn’t mean they’re not there: Nearly 2,000 wells operated by more than a dozen companies have been hidden behind verdant hedges and ivy-covered walls. The La Brea Tar Pits lie at the southern edge of the Salt Lake Oil Field, where there’s still an active drilling operation sandwiched between a hospital and a shopping mall. Salt Lake abuts the Beverly Hills Oil Field, where Venoco, Inc. will operate a drilling operation on the campus of Beverly Hills High School until that city's ban takes hold in 2017. The Beverly field connects with the Cheviot Hills Oil Field, where the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Company operates a drilling site hidden inside an expansive public park that includes dog-training grounds and an archery range, plus 18 holes of golf.
Farther south, the country’s largest urban oil field, Inglewood, runs the length of an open-space preserve, bounded on the other side by middle-class homes. Producing more than three million barrels of oil every year, the Inglewood field in 2009 ranked 44th among the top 100 most productive wells in the country.
They’re all getting old, these oil fields, all headed in the direction of the nearly played-out field where in 1892, E.L. Doheny (the loose inspiration behind Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!), struck black gold with a shovel, transforming Los Angeles from second-rate outpost to petroliferous urban hub. One company still extracts about 1,000 barrels a year from Doheny’s Los Angeles City Oil Field, the last sputtering remnant of a once fecund field that in the 1920s was dotted with hundreds of wells.
Which means that, with rising crude prices, oil companies are investigating “every new dangerous way,” Graham-Caso says, “to get oil out of the ground.” All forms of well stimulation, from hydrofracturing to acidizing — in which drillers pump toxic hydrofluoric acid into the ground to dissolve rock — have come to Los Angeles, consuming large amounts of water and threatening public health. People in one community adjacent to an acidized well have recently begun complaining about bad smells and nosebleeds; harbingers, perhaps, of worse ailments to come.
The oil companies and their advocates call the City Council's move to halt well stimulation sudden and unfair. They also say their practices are safe. They may be right, but no one knows that yet for sure. Bonin and his fellow Councilman Paul Koretz, who introduced the motion last September, asks oil companies to hold off until all the science is in on whether the techniques can be done safely, and if so, how. The city's unique and somewhat Byzantine legislative process means the motion itself doesn't immediately enforce a moratorium; instead, it directs the city attorney to draft an ordinance for a ban. Then the ordinance returns again to the council for a final, binding vote.
Almost no one expects that final vote to fail. That will make Los Angeles the first oil-producing city in California to stop fracking.
That could take as long as three months, depending on the workload at the city attorney's office. But as it's "incredibly rare for the Council to unanimously ask the city attorney to draft an ordinance and then not approve it," Graham-Caso says, almost no one expects that final vote to fail. That will make Los Angeles the first oil-producing city in California to stop fracking.
Bonin and Koretz hope it doesn’t end there. The motion is in part a response to State Sen. Fran Pavley's, Senate Bill 4, which was written to regulate fracking and acidizing but, by the time became law last September, had been so heavily amended that it ended up temporarily exempting some wells from environmental review. “The oil companies screwed themselves over by amending (SB 4) so much,” Graham-Caso says; the weakening of the state law triggered more severe local restrictions. As state legislation still makes more sense, Council members hope that their action “sends a very clear message to the legislature” in support of a state moratorium that State Senator Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles introduced last month.
But the City Council’s action matters even more than that, Graham-Caso argues. It goes beyond local public health, beyond state politics, even beyond restraining technologies that Bonin has called “energy production by Dr. Strangelove.” A local law, Graham-Caso says, can protect communities beyond its borders. “Pollution does not observe jurisdictional boundaries,” he says. Nor do water supplies or, for that matter, fault lines. Among the concerns about fracking is that it might stimulate earthquakes, and a fault of any significant length in Los Angeles — and there are a lot of them — will almost certainly resonate far beyond the city.
“It’s the inherent condition of our environment,” Graham-Caso says. "We’re all connected.”
Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News. She tweets @judlew. Photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation; used with permission under Creative Commons license 3.0.