California Activists Redouble Efforts to Hold the Oil Industry Accountable on Neighborhood Drilling

By all appearances, California environmental justice leaders should be taking a victory lap to celebrate recent laws and policies designed to rein in oil industry pollution and profiteering. 

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors officially approved an ordinance, unanimously passed in September, to prohibit new oil and gas wells and phase out current drilling in unincorporated areas of one of the nation’s most densely populated counties. 

The county’s move came a month after the city of Los Angeles passed a similar measure and Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to “protect Californians from being ripped off by Big Oil” with a price-gouging penalty. Newsom also signed landmark legislation that established the nation’s largest buffer zones between new oil wells and neighborhood sites and tightened pollution controls on existing wells. 

“From the city of L.A. to the governor of California, we’re seeing calls to end oil extraction,” said Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who led the Los Angeles County effort on behalf of the tens of thousands of residents, predominantly people of color, who live near an oil well. “I see the county’s efforts to phase out oil drilling using a just transition approach as a roadmap for our region and for our state.”

Yet even as public officials and environmental experts honored these gains earned by the “tireless and ongoing work” of those most affected by neighborhood oil drilling, they are keenly aware that their work is not finished.

Los Angeles County has about 1,600 oil wells and the largest urban oilfield in the country. But Kern County, to the north in the San Joaquin Valley, produces roughly three-quarters of California’s onshore oil and gas, with more than 9,000 wells in the city of Bakersfield alone, while Central Coast counties produce millions of barrels of oil a year. 

“We must ensure that these gains are not solely felt by L.A. County residents,” said Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, environmental justice lead for Black Women for Wellness, at a press conference held outside county headquarters on Tuesday. “All impacted by the extreme public health crisis created by fossil fuel pollution and the current climate emergency, especially Black, brown and Indigenous folks, deserve to be free from the effects of oil drilling activities.”

California’s landmark buffer zone law, Senate Bill 1137, was designed to do just that by mandating a roughly half-mile setback. But days after Newsom signed the law in September, the oil industry filed a referendum to overturn it. 

Now, environmental justice advocates are mobilizing allies to hold the line against oil industry polluters’ multimillion-dollar campaign to reverse what community leaders call the most significant environmental win in years. 

Toward that end, they’re working to shed light on the oil industry’s efforts “to profit off the misery of Californians while shielding itself from measures such as S.B. 1137 that limit its reach into our communities,” said Arturo Carmona, chief of Tzunu Strategies, a progressive public relations firm, in a media briefing on Jan. 19.

Regulators have already started rulemaking on S.B. 1137, which went into effect Jan. 1, and Newsom’s latest budget earmarked more than $55 million to implement it.  

Even so, neighborhood oil drillers are determined to stop it. They spent more than $20 million in just three months to circulate petitions and get their repeal measure on the 2024 ballot. 

The top funder, Sentinel Peak Resources, spent $4.5 million on the effort.

This 13-well drilling in Los Angeles is less than 300 feet from two high schools and a medical care facility, and less than 50 feet from homes in the neighborhood. The video above shows uncontrolled emissions of toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds.

Sentinel operates Los Angeles County’s Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country, where hundreds of wells pollute several Black and Latino communities in Mitchell’s district. Sentinel used more than 225 million barrels of water to extract about 3 million barrels of oil from Inglewood since 2021. Statewide, the company used hundreds of millions of gallons of high-quality water that might otherwise have gone to cities and farms between 2018 and 2021, an Inside Climate News investigation found. Sentinel said those figures reflect errors in their reports. 

Paid canvassers began circulating the oil industry’s referendum petition in October. By Halloween, reports had emerged from Los Angeles to Sacramento that petition circulators were lying to voters, falsely claiming their signatures would help lower gas prices and create, rather than repeal, neighborhood safeguards, as Inside Climate News reported

Environmental advocates said the Secretary of State’s office had been “inundated with voter fraud complaints,” including some they filed themselves. When asked how many voters filed complaints about being misled, a Secretary of State spokesperson said it “does not track, record or maintain the information you have requested.”

County election officials have until Feb. 7 to submit reports to state officials that petitions were signed by registered voters. So far, officials have verified more than three-quarters of the signatures needed to qualify for the 2024 ballot. 

Entrenched Environmental Racism

The oil industry is the largest industrial source of ozone-forming compounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Oil and gas drilling operations emit particle pollution as well as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs—which not only trigger the formation of ground level ozone but also cause cancer, organ damage and other serious health problems. 

Ozone can damage the airways, make the lungs more susceptible to infection and aggravate asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. Particle pollution increases the risk of asthma attacks, heart disease and lung cancer. 

Drilling operations increase concentrations of these and other toxic compounds as far as 2.5 miles downwind, a peer-reviewed study published last year in Science of the Total Environment found. That’s nearly 2 miles farther than the setback mandated by S.B. 1137.

Los Angeles, about 10 miles east of the sprawling Inglewood Oil Field, has the worst ground level ozone pollution in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s most recent State of the Air report. Bakersfield, in the heart of Kern County’s oil fields, has the highest levels of fine particle pollution.

S.B. 1137 author Sen. Lena Gonzalez knows firsthand how neighborhood oil drilling harms communities. Gonzalez is from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington, where 90 percent of residents are people of color and oil wells operate day and night. 

To show policymakers what residents have long known to be true, Kyle Ferrar, western program coordinator for the nonprofit group FracTracker Alliance, has trained specialized video cameras on hundreds of oil wells, processing and storage tanks to reveal fumes otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Ferrar visited more than a dozen sites in and around Los Angeles, including Inglewood and Wilmington, over a few days in 2019. He filmed VOCs and the climate super-pollutant methane spewing from well sites near homes, schools and a medical facility. When he returned to the area in August, he recorded the same toxic gases leaking from 15 idle well sites and 19 oil processing and storage tanks.

These dangerous air pollutants caused epidemic levels of illness, even before the pandemic, hitting low-income communities and communities of color the hardest, said Catherine Garoupa, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition at the Jan. 19 briefing. 

“As we began to do research, we found that of the nearly five and a half million Californians who live within one mile of an oil or gas well, a third live in areas with the highest levels of environmental pollution in the state,” said Garoupa. “Ninety-two percent of those individuals living in heavily burdened areas are people of color.”

She credits multiple long-fought grassroots campaigns around Los Angeles and the southern San Joaquin Valley for getting state and local drilling protections in place.

A coalition of youth groups from South Los Angeles and Wilmington and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the city of Los Angeles eight years ago, charging officials with “rubber stamping oil drilling applications” through “actions that amount to unlawful racial discrimination and a denial of environmental justice.”

The groups settled with the city, which adopted new rules for drilling to safeguard communities. But the California Independent Petroleum Association, or CIPA—an industry trade group that spent $1 million so far on the S.B. 1137 referendum—sued the Center for Biological Diversity, the youth groups and the city, claiming the settlement infringed upon the trade group’s due process to intervene. A California appeals court ultimately dismissed CIPA’s legal challenge in 2019 as an abuse of the judicial process, in violation of California’s law against retaliatory lawsuits designed to stifle public participation.

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CIPA chief executive officer Rock Zierman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tuesday morning, Mitchell, the Los Angeles County supervisor, thanked groups like those from South Los Angeles and Wilmington for helping to pass the new county ordinance. By day’s end, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had officially approved the ban on new wells, which will take effect before the end of next month, and the move to phase out all drilling over the next two decades. 

Kern County officials are unlikely to pass a similar health protective measure. County supervisors, in stark contrast to their Los Angeles counterparts, are staunch defenders of the oil industry. The board unanimously approved an ordinance in 2015 to fast-track permits for new wells. The ordinance ultimately survived several legal challenges that charged the county with skirting environmental review, and the county resumed permitting in November.

“Kern County runs on oil,” board chair Philip Peters said in a 2021 meeting, before suing Newsom for directing his oil and gas regulators to stop issuing fracking permits. The case was dismissed.

Environmental justice experts worry that the oil industry will also block efforts to help oil workers transition to clean energy jobs.

“We cannot trust the just transition to the oil and gas industry,” said Cesar Aguirre, an organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “They will use the Central Valley in Kern County, my home, as a sacrifice zone. And I’m not willing to stand for that.”

New Steps of Change 

If the S.B. 1137 referendum qualifies for the ballot, it could freeze implementation of the law and allow oil companies to profit from neighborhood-polluting wells until voters decide the measure’s fate in 2024. 

Sixteen neighborhood oil drillers operate more than 4,800 oil and gas wells within the law’s half-mile buffer zone, data from FracTracker shows. FracTracker’s Ferrar monitors California oil permitting trends, and recently reported a dramatic spike in permits approved within the setback last year compared with 2021. 

California Geologic Energy M​anagement Division, or CalGEM, issued 22 permits within the last four months of 2021, Ferrar found, compared with 222 in the last quarter of 2022. Nearly half of last year’s new permits were within the buffer zones. It’s unclear what drove the increase, but it appears that regulators were working through a backlog, because they approved about 500 new permits both years.

CalGEM did not respond to a request to explain the year-end permitting rush.

Organizers believe the spike in permits within the setback zones explains why CalGEM director Uduak-Joe Ntuk resigned earlier this month. Newsom appointed Ntuk, a former Chevron engineer, in 2019, a month before he directed the agency to strengthen its oversight of the industry to protect public health. 

Ntuk wasn’t a good fit for CalGEM’s new mission, said Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator for VISION, short for Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. Community groups see Ntuk’s departure as a sign that the Newsom administration is serious about changing the agency’s priorities, he said. “The selection of the supervisor of CalGEM will really signal if the new administration is going to walk the talk or not when it comes to protecting environmental justice communities.”

Newsom’s office did not address questions about why Ntuk resigned, saying only: “We thank Mr. Ntuk for his work in the administration and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Ntuk told the Sacramento Bee that he resigned to focus on his family. 

Environmental advocates are urging Newsom to continue implementing S.B. 1137, either by issuing a moratorium on new permits or directing his oil and gas regulators to stop approving permits, as they did with fracking. 

Strong leadership from CalGEM is vital to securing community protections as well as a just transition from fossil fuels, Garoupa said. “The transition is inevitable, but justice is not,” she said. “We need CalGEM to partner with the governor and with us to make sure that this priority makes it across the finish line.”

For Shaw-Wakema of Black Women for Wellness, change will come, as it always has, from the work of people concentrated in contaminated communities by racist housing policies. “The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change,” she said, quoting a stanza from one of her favorite Maya Angelou poems.

Shaw-Wakema thanked the people who leaned into the fight for change to achieve the unprecedented oil drilling protections around Los Angeles and the state.

Now, they must lean forward again, she said, to bring about more urgent change. “And look ahead to a future where everyone in our county and someday our state can live without the burden of environmental injustice.”

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                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Reporter, West Coast, National Environmental Reporting Network</h4>

                Liza Gross is a reporter for Inside Climate News based in Northern California. She is the author of The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook and a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook, both funded by National Association of Science Writers’ Peggy Girshman Idea Grants. She has long covered science, conservation, agriculture, public and environmental health and justice with a focus on the misuse of science for private gain. Prior to joining ICN, she worked as a part-time magazine editor for the open-access journal PLOS Biology, a reporter for the Food &amp; Environment Reporting Network and produced freelance stories for numerous national outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Discover and Mother Jones. Her work has won awards from the Association of Health Care Journalists, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and Association of Food Journalists.

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