LA's long, troubled history with urban oil drilling is nearing an end after years of health concerns
Published in News & Features
Los Angeles had oil wells pumping in its neighborhoods when Hollywood was in its infancy, and thousands of active wells still dot the city.
These wells can emit toxic chemicals such as benzene and other irritants into the air, often just feet from homes, schools and parks. But now, after nearly a decade of community organizing and studies demonstrating the adverse health impacts on people living nearby, Los Angeles’ long history with urban drilling is nearing an end.
In a unanimous vote on Jan. 24, 2023, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to ban new oil and gas extraction and phase out existing operations. It followed a similar vote by the Los Angeles City Council a month earlier. The city set a 20-year phaseout period, while the county has yet to set a timetable.
As environmental health researchers, we study the impacts of oil drilling on surrounding communities. Our research shows that people living near these urban oil operations suffer higher rates of asthma than average, as well as wheezing, eye irritation and sore throats. In some cases, the impact on residents’ lungs is worse than living beside a highway or being exposed to secondhand smoke every day.
Over a century ago, the first industry to boom in Los Angeles was oil.
Oil was abundant and flowed close to the surface. In early 20th-century California, sparse laws governed mineral extraction, and rights to oil accrued to those who could pull it out of the ground first. This ushered in a period of rampant drilling, with wells and associated machinery crisscrossing the landscape. By the mid-1920s, Los Angeles was one of the largest oil-exporting regions in the world.
Oil rigs were so pervasive across the region that the Los Angeles Times described them in 1930 as “trees in a forest.” Working-class communities were initially supportive of the industry because it promised jobs but later pushed back as their neighborhoods witnessed explosions and oil spills, along with longer-term damage to land, water and human health.
Tensions over land use, extraction rights and subsequent drops in oil prices due to overproduction eventually resulted in curbs on drilling and a long-standing practice of oil companies’ voluntary “self-regulation,” such as noise-reduction technologies. The industry began touting these voluntary approaches to deflect governmental regulation.
Increasingly, oil companies disguised their activities with approaches such as operating inside buildings, building tall walls and designing islands off Long Beach and other sites to blend in with the landscape. Oil drilling was hidden in plain sight.
Today there are over 20,000 active, idle or abandoned wells spread across a county of 10 million people. About one-third of residents live less than a mile from an active well site, some right next door.