RIP fossil fuels?

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By Sebastian Ramirez

Playa Del Rey Natural Gas Storage Facility down the hill from houses.
Photo by Sebastian Ramirez

Cars. Buses. Trucks. Trains. Planes. 

What do they have in common? The majority are fueled exclusively by fossil fuels, and contribute half of all greenhouse gas emissions in California

The state consumes 1.8 million barrels of oil and gas per day. About a third of those are produced in California, and the rest are imported. In L.A. County alone, there are 5,919 oil and gas wells, not including offshore wells. 

Dr. Jason Jarvis moved to Los Angeles in 2015 from Atlanta. Previously unaware of any issues regarding the oil industry, he became invested after seeing a map showing all the active, idle and abandoned wells in L.A. County. 

Jarvis, who works as an assistant professor of communication studies at LMU, was shocked at how extensive this issue was. When a newcomer hears about Los Angeles, oil and gas drilling is rarely mentioned. The issue, however, dates back to the late 19th century when oil was first discovered in Southern California by Edward L. Doheny. By 1920, California was producing 103.4 million barrels per year, making it one of the world’s top oil producers. 

“When I first moved here, the Aliso Canyon gas leak—the worst in the history of the country—happened shortly after where 96,000 metric tons of methane gas were released to the air,” said Jarvis in an interview. 

This gas leak which occurred in a SoCal Gas storage facility, forced the company to relocate nearby residents whose health was compromised. There are 4 natural gas storage facilities including Aliso Canyon across the Los Angeles area at risk of similar leaks. 

Politicians begin to act 

For years, the state as well as the companies that own wells have done very little to protect the environment against this threat. Just recently, California has started addressing this issue. 

“Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with health defects and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021 during the presentation of the state’s new plan to stop the construction of new wells near houses and schools. 

To try to combat fossil fuel emissions, earlier this year the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously in favor of drafting an ordinance to ban the production of new oil and gas wells near residential zones. The plan also includes progressively phasing out the existing wells around the city. 

The recommendations approved by council members are just the first step in trying to achieve the state’s goal of having all new cars and trucks sold to be 100% carbon-free by 2035. 

Serious health concerns 

A study by USC researchers that was published by the journal Environmental Research showed that living near an oil or gas well is associated with low lung function. In some cases, the health of residents deteriorates similarly to those exposed to daily secondhand smoking. 

This is the case for both active and idle oil wells, as it’s been proven that wells that are inactive or abandoned continue to expel methane gas into the air. 

The study also found that health issues deriving from proximity to wells disproportionately affect those living in low-income neighborhoods. 

In Colorado, another oil state, a study published in 2018 by Colorado School of Public Health researchers proved that residents living less than 152 meters (approximately 500 feet) from an oil or gas well may experience an excess of cancer risk. 

Oil well next door to a house in LA County.
Photo by Sebastian Ramirez

“In Long Beach, experts from Stanford have tied birth defects and early birth to living in proximity to oil wells,” said Tara Pixley, a journalism professor at LMU who is working to visually showcase the proximity of oil infrastructures to homes. “There is science now to show that actually there is a relationship between this. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that children who have lived in proximity to wells get really bad headaches, nose bleeds and several cancer clusters,” said Pixley. 

Status quo 

Pixley explained that oil companies were able to pass a law years ago that allowed the chemicals that they use for extracting oil to be a trade secret. Therefore, we know the chemicals are toxic, but no one can prove it because the companies won’t divulge the actual chemicals they are using. 

New proposed legislation from Gov. Newsom regarding buffer zones won’t eradicate the issue completely, but will stop oil and gas companies from building new wells near homes. It also does not include reparations for those whose health has been impacted by the industry for decades. 

“We have a long history of creating an industry that supports our thirst for oil. Our industries, businesses, jobs and livelihoods are created around fossil-fuel dependency and changing that is never easy,” said Laura Deehan, state director of Environment California in an interview with Climate360News. 

Non-profit organizations like Environment California and mainly the STAND-LA coalition are trying to uproot the existing system and transform it to 100% clean energy powered by the wind and sun. 

“You wouldn’t expect that California would be so far behind in regulating the oil industry. It comes down to the interests of oil and gas companies and their workers who support them and are very invested in doing their job,” said Deehan. 

The industry responds 

According to a report released by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LACEDC), the oil and gas industries generated $152.3 billion in total economic output for the state in 2017. This made up 2.1% of California’s overall gross state product during that year. This revenue for the state is one of the reasons that few efforts have been made to regulate and close down wells. 

Those in the oil business have been quick to react to the L.A. City Council’s vote to phase out the industry. 

“Shutting down domestic energy production not only puts Californians out of work and reduces taxes that pay for vital services, but it makes us more dependent on imported foreign oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq,” said Rock Zierman, CEO of California Independent Petroleum Association, in an email to Climate 360 News. 

Zierman assured that cutting local production will raise gas prices while further harming the environment as imports are completely exempted from California’s stringent environmental laws. 

Now the city must put forward a plan to replace all the jobs from the fossil fuel industry to clean energy jobs. An evaluation of drilling sites across the city will tell whether companies have recovered the value of their investments in these sites. If so, city officials say it will be easier to close these sites. 

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