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The convergence of oil extraction practices and land use policy in Los Angeles City and County is long and untidy. Petroleum extraction began at least 20 years before the first zoning ordinance was passed and more than 50 years before the first comprehensive code was adopted, yet petroleum practice and land use regulation in LA have come to be tightly bound since and the culture of deregulation that allowed for the unbridled boom of the early 20th century continues into the present through bureaucratic obfuscation and broken policy. The land use baseline, which limits petroleum products manufacturing, petroleum pumping, petroleum refining, petroleum dehydrating plants, and petroleum products bulk distributing stations to zone M3, HEAVY INDUSTRIAL, is so thoroughly punctured with special provisions, overlays, variances, and other such "quasi-judicial" exceptions as to be largely a matter of regulatory discretion.  

Despite an apparent ambition to separate oil extraction from other residential, civic, and commercial uses on the basis of hazard and nuisance, hundreds of active oil wells remain embedded in high residency areas in baseline zoning classifications from R1-M3.  There are 1,071 active oil wells in LA city, 795 of which are located less than 1,500 feet from homes, schools, parks, and hospitals.  


In Wilmington—identified by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) as “ground zero” for fossil fuel production burdens in California—the residential landscape is dense with oil wells subject to extraction processes of increasing toxicity and frequency. Further compromising the health and land values of this commu-nity, Wilmington is also home to half of LA’s crude oil refining capacity, and the subsequent emission of approximately half the volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions for the entire LA region (approx. 1,600 tons/year).  Alone these two factors create a tremendous health burden for residents of Wilmington, when combined with air quality and toxicity hazards produced through proximity to the 1-110 and 710 freeways, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Alameda Railway Corridor, the environmental burden is staggering. Each of these toxicity conditions may be seen, fundamentally, as an issue of energy, and may be directly correlated to implications of land use practice for transportation, industrial siting, density management, and allowable use.

Furthermore, while it may surprise most, the regulation of oil extraction in Los Angeles is largely managed through land use policy. Overseen by the Zoning Administrator—in conjunction with LAFD and LADBS—twenty pages comprising SEC. 13.01. “O” OIL DRILLING DISTRICTS, of Chapter 1. PLANNING AND ZONING, of the Los Angeles Municipal Code describe, in significant detail, allowable practices, procedures, equipment, noise abatement, emission control measures, and other such operational mechanics, as well as broad land use guidelines relating to the practice of oil extraction in Los Angeles.   Administration of the “O” district regulations and provisions has a long and documented history of uneven application in neighbor-hoods of varying economic status and racial demographic, with oil wells in wealthy neighborhoods being held to significantly higher standards than those in low-income areas. 

Several of those processes and procedures outlined in SEC. 13.01 require the primary approval of the city Petro-leum Administrator. This position, which has remained largely vacant for decades, was reinstated in 2016 by Mayor Garcetti, as a sixth commissioner on the Board of Public Works under mounting public pressure from advocacy groups following the Aliso Canyon catastrophe, and in response to the glaring lack of technical expertise acknowledged by a LADCP in their conservative response to the City Council’s  proposed ban on fracking in 2014. Many of those groups advocating for petroleum reform, however, were dismayed by a candidate search which was seen as seeking an industry insider rather than a public advocate.


Additionally, depletion of surface oil and legislatively deregulated state and federal standards make processes such as hydraulic fracturing, gravel packing, and soil acidification increasingly common in Los Angeles.  In response to increases in high-impact oil extraction processes, Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Los Angeles Chapter issued a state-ment and info-graphic in August of 2013 detailing the 649 chemicals present in the 980 known fracking chemical “products.” 90% of those “products” are known to contain chemicals with adverse effects to the brain, nervous system, endocrine system, immune system, respiratory system, kidneys, liver, and skin.  


Practices such as directional drilling have allowed operators to undertake significant increases in the intensity of drilling operations from a single well or site, sidestepping land use limitations on number of allowable wells per parcel/acre and increasing the neighboring burden for toxic emission, noise hazard, industrial trucking volume, and chemical influx, not to mention ground water contamination.       


The Warren E&P Inc. drill site on East Anaheim St. (Wilmington) makes the consequences of production escalation and new extraction tactics evident. While the site had been active since the 1930s with nine wells operating on a 10 acre lot, after a transfer of ownership in 2005, LADCP gave Warren E&P Inc. approval to drill up to 540 new wells over a twelve year period.  Then Wilmington City Council Rep. (now City Supervisor) Janice Hahn said the expectation was that directional drilling at the Warren E&P Inc. site would allow for the elimination of drill sites elsewhere in Wilmington and the creation of "pocket parks" in their place. Instead heavy drilling, shaking windows, increased emissions of foul and toxic plumes, heavy chemical and petroleum trucking, thick black residue, and other such hazards increased.  After ten years of complaints and appeals from citizens and advocacy groups, the zoning case for Warren E&P was reopened, however regulatory action has done little to change conditions of operation.  

The case of Warren E&P Inc. is not particularly unique. Other highly problematic, large scale operations in LA City include 2126 W Adams (Freeport McMoran Inc., 22 active wells, 7 injection wells), 1317 W Jefferson Blvd. (Freeport McMoRan Inc., 29 active wells, 133,766 lbs. of corrosive acids and toxic chemical used 2013-14), the Inglewood Oil Field (Freeport McMoRan Oil & Gas, 959 active wells, 100% fractured), the now infamous Porter Ranch site in Aliso Canyon Park (Southern California Gas Company, 32 active wells, 229 storage wells with 86 billion + cu ft of natural gas storage), and the AllenCo Energy site at 814 W. 23rd St. (21 wells, currently closed due to toxic emissions, pending reopening). 

The AllenCo site on W. 23rd St. “voluntarily” suspended operations in 2013, at the request of Senator Barbara Boxer, after a 400% production increase in 2010 prompted over 250 complaints to the South Coast Air Quality District (SCAQD) of headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and asthma, finally prompting an EPA investigation during which investigators were overcome by toxic vapors and stricken ill.

While these cases offer severe examples of the hazardous proximities embedded in LA’s hydrocarbon land use policies, it is well documented that methane is leaked at nearly every stage of natural gas production and storage. This means the problematic escape of this highly destructive GHG (100 times more heat trapping than CO₂ on a 15 year time scale) is not limited to large scale operations but likely occurs, to varying degrees, at every natural gas burning power plant, natural gas storage facility, and hydraulic fracking site in Los Angeles.


Beyond issues of local systemic environmental racism and defective and corrupted land use regulation, the city’s on-going engagement with oil extraction and natural gas combustion as allowable land uses brings into question broader issues surrounding the energy culture that such land use embodies.  To meet the 2°C temperature rise limit set in the Paris Climate Agreement—a goal which seems increasingly impossible to meet by any standard—scientist have cautioned that we must leave at least ⅔ of all known fossil fuel stores untouched, in the ground. Natural gas and petroleum reserves unlocked through practices such as hydraulic fracturing, gravel packing, and soil acidification are not included in said “known stores,” and represent an amount in excess of the total, making oil ex-traction in Los Angeles a matter of international climate ethicacy.    

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