Los Angeles Responds to Calls to Hire a Petroleum Administrator
A long-demanded reform moved ahead in the first week of February when Council President Herb Wesson secured a vote in the City Council to hire a full-time Petroleum Administrator. Mayor Eric Garcetti responded immediately that he was already interviewing prospective candidates, seeking persons with technical expertise in oil and gas operations.
Obviously the most immediate prod to our city administrators was the three-and-a-half month methane gas leak in Porter Ranch, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, that forced thousands of residents from their homes. But Porter Ranch was only the latest consequence of decisions made more than 150 years ago to allow oil and gas wells to spread throughout the residential neighborhoods of our city. It was the inevitable consequence of decades of missing oversight over an industry that normally operates far from people’s houses.
Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil fields in the country with some 3,000 active wells branching out underground from 70 drill sites, many in residential neighborhoods, sometimes only a few feet from residences or schools. Despite the fact that this industry is based on a product that is itself dangerous and uses large amounts of dangerous chemicals, the city has for decades grandfathered these operations in, paying little attention to how they operate and lacking any system of overall review and accountability.
City code has detailed rules on how to apply to drill an oil well, and prohibits fumes or excessive noise from oil operations. It lacks detailed rules on air quality, environmental oversight, or access to records. It does not provide for any periodic review on whether its rules are being followed, or which agency to complain to if they are not. Nominally there is the State Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, but it has recently admitted that it has not done serious investigations in years. In practice complaints go to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), to Zoning Administrators at the City Planning Department, or to Building and Safety. The LA Times in their February 4 report on the Petroleum Administrator issue quoted South Los Angeles resident Steven Peckman, who said, “As a citizen, you may call the agency that you think is responsible, they point their finger at some other agency. Someone needs to mind the store.”
When between 2011 and 2013 some 250 complaints were made to AQMD about nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses from fumes at the Allen Co. oil drill site at 23rd Street just west of Figueroa they issued several citations but never enforced them. Zoning Administrators will hold a hearing about a single drill site, but have no expertise in oil issues and do not visit the actual site. Building and Safety says it is in charge of dealing with violations but its leaders say they lack the expertise to be able to do so.
There was a city Petroleum Administrator in the 1960s, Arthur Spaulding, a geologist and former petroleum engineer at Shell Oil Co. He was replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by Jeff Druyan, who did not have those credentials and who worked most of the time as a budget analyst. The job, though still required by city code, has not existed since the 1990s.
In part this gross negligence was a result of lack of attention to changes in the oil industry. By the 1990s most of the LA oil wells were running low and the majority were plugged and shut down. This seemed to confirm that an expensive Petroleum Administrator was no longer needed.
Then world conventional oil – the kind you can just pump out of the ground – flat lined in 2005. Oil companies filled in with much more expensive and difficult to obtain unconventional oil: Canadian tar sands, fracked oil from Texas and North Dakota, deep sea oil, and heavy oil from Venezuela. Prices shot up, reaching $100 a barrel in 2011. New owners quickly bought up hundreds of the old LA wells, using new techniques to get at the remaining oil. Mainly this was acidizing, pumping thousands of gallons of acid into the wells to dissolve blockages to small fissures, each holding small amounts of oil. The risk, as the Allen Co. site showed, was running all this acid into wells that are almost all more than 50 years old and often not in good condition.
A methane leak near the Beverly Center in 1985 injured 23 people. A major fume leak in the giant Inglewood Oil Field in 2006 forced the evacuation of 500 people. There was a toxic fume blowout in Torrance in March 2007; a 10,000-gallon spill in an industrial section of Los Angeles in May 2014 from a pipeline running to Long Beach.
South L.A. Oil Sites Closer to Homes
And then came the long community battles over three South Los Angeles oil sites: the worst being the Allen Co. drill site. But there have been complaints of fumes and construction noise at two sites owned by the giant Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas Company: the Jefferson Drill Site at Budlong Avenue and Jefferson Blvd. and their Murphy site at Adams Blvd. and Gramercy Place. These three sites, along with some in Wilmington, are closer to residential housing than sites in any other part of the city.
The Community Health Councils in a January 2015 Issue Brief pointed out:
“Although oil and gas production occurs citywide, the relative risk is significantly higher in lower-income communities of color. Oil drilling occurs closer to homes, has fewer protective features such as air monitoring and enclosed operations, and is subject to more regulatory violations and complaints.”
The LA Times ran a February 4 editorial under the heading: “It’s past time for L.A. to seriously regulate its oil and gas wells.” They wrote: “The massive gas leak in Porter Ranch has forced city leaders to confront the tremendous risks of having oil and gas operations in urban areas.”
It is essential that there be at least one central full-time person in the city administration with serious technical knowledge of oil and gas operations, who can go to problem sites and assess citizen complaints. Even the California Independent Petroleum Association, an industry group, say they favor having someone with real technical knowledge on the city payroll who will know if citizen complaints are valid. The second qualification for this job beyond oil industry experience is that they be committed to protect the safety of the community. Given that, we all look forward to the Mayor’s appointment.