1949 image of oil wells and a residence in the LA region. Source: LAPL Security Pacific National Bank Collection

1949 image of oil wells and a residence in the LA region. Source: LAPL Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Most conversations about planning and zoning in Los Angeles understandably look forward and look up. Where should LA grow? How can we remain a diverse city in the face of high housing costs? But one of our greatest land use challenges lies below, in the active oil wells that pepper LA’s residential neighborhoods, causing concerns about toxic emissions and residents’ health.

Last week Los Angeles City Council members introduced a motion calling for a report back within 120 days on “possible implementation of changes to the City’s land use codes relative to oil and gas development.”

This motion raises questions on the best ways to protect health and to regulate clashing land uses. Is zoning the right tool, regulations targeted to the risk, or both? How can we assess the environmental impacts of proposed (future) activities and structures AND already existing uses and systems?

There are over 1000 active oil wells in the City of Los Angeles, and 3000 in LA County.  The potential health threats are especially worrisome in low-income communities already burdened by pollution from freeways, freight facilities, oil refineries and other small and large industrial sites. This map from a report by my former Occidental College colleagues Bhavna Shamasundra and Jim Sadd shows that while active oil fields extend across swathes of the LA region, some concentrations of active wells overlap with neighborhoods that are among the most disadvantaged and most heavily polluted in the state.  

Oil production was one of the LA region’s earliest and therefore formative industries. Historian Fred Viehe has argued that oil industry was as or more influential than transportation patterns in shaping the geography of Southern California. He writes that “the extractive industry was responsible for both suburban dispersal and metropolitan fragmentation in southern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.. More specifically, the industrial suburbs around Los Angeles contained derricks, refineries, and tank farms, while residential suburbs incorporated..” near each of these oil drilling clusters to provide dwellings for workers and their families.

But this division into industrial cities and residential cities was not the only pattern. Drilling also took place in already settled areas. Concern over the proximity of these wells to homes and schools has been an issue in the region for more than a century. A contemporary in the late 19th century wrote of the “blow-outs, gassers, gushers, fires, explosions, craters [and] geysers” that characterized oil exploration and production. According to Kathy Kolnick’s research on early land use regulations in LA, “during much of the 1890s, the oil industry, oil refineries and the problem of oil wells in the hill districts west of downtown was the predominant land use issue confronting the city council.”

The City of Los Angeles never adequately controlled where and how drilling could take place. For a short period in the late 1890s and early 1900s, drilling was banned within 1,600 feet of city parks. Yet, LA also allowed oil drilling districts to be established in already-populated residential areas. In 1946, the last time LA comprehensively updated its zoning, there were already 29 oil drilling districts.

We are still living with this patchwork approach to oil and gas production. As a result,  residents living near wells complain of headaches, nausea, bloody noses, asthma attacks, and frequent visits to the emergency room. Residents may not receive any information about operations happening on the other side of a wall at the border of their property- literally feet from their windows-  or about the chemicals being trucked in, or of the acids being piped under their homes.  

Most of these drill sites operate with permits grandfathered from the 1960s. Their continued operations expose ironies and challenges in how we regulate land, assess environmental impacts, and protect public health:

  • Because these sites have existed for decades, they are not subject to environmental review. There is a drilling site in South LA where new owners might try to cap the wells and build affordable housing. Building a medium sized apartment building (50+ units) on the vacant lot would require a lengthy environmental review. But owners of the wells could keep pumping oil close to adjacent residences bedroom windows without having to file a single CEQA document.
  • Our zoning code makes it difficult to establish new oil drilling districts.  New districts in urbanized areas need to be at least 40 acres in size; applicants need rights from property owners to drill under at least 75% of the proposed district; and the number of wells allowed in each new district is strictly limited. But again, existing wells in existing districts are not subject to these limits.

Old permits don’t reflect current research on health impacts nor the state’s recent emphasis on protecting residents from multiple, overlapping sources of pollutants. Based on the nature of the potential harm from air emissions, noise, spills etc, what types of regulatory approach would best protect public health? Should LA use zoning rules to ban wells near sensitive receptors (locations like residences, schools and hospitals)? Try to work with state and regional regulators to place stronger standards on oil production? Or both..

The council motion filed last week gives LA the chance to examine these options and to take a new approach to urban oil drilling. The motion calls out two potential land use tools: buffers and amortization. It calls for a report back on potentially requiring a ‘setback proximity,’ or a buffer distance, between oil production and residential and related sensitive uses. Buffers can be used to keep dangerous or disruptive uses away from people who might be harmed or impacted. For example, LA’s Clean Up Green Up ordinance set areas where any “new automobile dismantling yard, exhaust test station, automobile laundries (car wash), automotive repair, used auto retail sales, assembly of auto parts and accessories, tire shop, tire repair, and wholesale auto parts and accessory facilities.. within 500 feet of a residential zone.”

Amortization means a phase out of uses that have been grandfathered in but that are currently banned. The term sounds financial because the length of the phase out is often set so as to allow the owner to keep operating long enough to recoup some or all of their initial investment. It is obviously legal to apply new and stronger regulations to existing businesses, but when an existing use is severely restricted or banned on a site, questions arise on whether this is a “taking” that the government must compensate the owner for. If LA sets a very short amortization period it might be vulnerable to lawsuits from well owners. If it sets a very long phase out, it would fail to protect residents’ health. The fact that most drilling sites in the city are decades old would seem to suggest that a more rapid phase out would be fair.

In 1957, LA’s chief zoning administrator testified: “If we planners had our way, we would prefer that oil drilling and production be excluded from urban areas, especially residential sections.” Unfortunately, his next word was “However…” and he went on to talk about valuable ‘natural resources’ and ‘black gold’ and how residents of the LA region as drivers used gallons of gasoline every day and so needed a steady supply of oil. While many Angelenos still drive and buy and use plenty of gas, the city and state are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rectify environmental injustices. An outcome that safeguards public health and reinforces our commitment to combating climate change would also signal that we can plan with 21st century priorities.

For more information on efforts to regulate urban oil drilling in LA, you can contact STAND-L.A, which is a coalition trying to end neighborhood drilling. LAplus is not a member of this coalition, but we are interested in good rules that support health and sustainability. In many cases, shaping a more livable and sustainable city will require paring back LA’s outdated zoning rules to remove barriers to development that can provide Angelenos with more housing, more walkable communities, and opportunities to try new ways of living and working. In the case of oil drilling, however, the City needs stronger regulations. Active oil wells and healthy families do not seem like compatible uses.