Public Hearings Held on Urban Oil Drilling

The price at the pump isn't the only way the oil economy is affecting people in Los Angeles. Energy companies are increasingly interested in drilling in California's urban areas, including the Inglewood Oil field in Baldwin Hills. L.A. County planners are figuring out how to permit future drilling and protect the people who live nearby. The second of four scheduled public hearings begins at 6 o'clock Thursday night. KPCC's Molly Peterson has more on what's at stake.

Molly Peterson: Maybe you've passed the 400-some oil derricks nodding and grasshopper-like on your way to L.A. International Airport. But people who live near the 1000-acre Inglewood Oil Field, especially along its eastern edge, can't help but see the drilling every day.

John Kuechle: We're standing in people's backyards and you could early throw a stone to, what? 30 or 40 oil wells. And then they just go on forever into the distance.

Peterson: John Kuechle doesn't live on this Windsor Hills street. His Culver Crest neighborhood is on the oil field's west side. There, houses don't rumble from oil drilling, or shake when field managers flare off extra natural gas, the way houses in Baldwin and Windsor Hills do. You can't see machinery from Kuechle's back yard. But three Januarys ago, maybe for the first time, Kuechle smelled it.

Kuechle: At about 2:00 in the morning, my wife woke me up and said, "There's something wrong." There was just this incredibly foul odor. And my wife called the police department; she was one of I guess 60 or 70 calls that they received that night.

Peterson: A hilltop well had unexpectedly hit a pocket of hydrogen sulfide and methane gas. Culver Crest, Kuechle said, was on the wrong side of the Santa Ana winds.

Kuechle: And we tried to back to sleep and my wife was feeling nauseous and couldn't get back to sleep. And finally we decided we had to leave the house, so we got our son and got into the car and so we drove around downtown Culver City for three hours. It was tough to be in the house for the entire day. The odor didn't go away until dinnertime.

Peterson: That year, L.A. County banned new or deeper drilling. But the company sitting on oil rights, Plains Exploration, is still interested in new wells. The state decides whether to permit that; it has since drilling started in Inglewood 84 years ago. But County Supervisor Yvonne Burke says now that bean fields no longer surround oil fields, the county should use its sway to set rules around drilling.

Supervisor Yvonne Burke: Many of the areas were industrial. And then homes grew up around the areas. And as a result, when you have an area like this, you have to find some way for the two uses to be compatible.

Peterson: Burke believes the county can create a community standards district that sets conditions on pollution, noise, and nuisances for the oilfield's neighbors.

As part of that, county planners are reviewing projected oil operations for environmental impacts. Data (that) Plains Exploration gave to planners project that the company could drill 50 or so wells a year for 20 years.

John Kuechle and his group, the Greater Baldwin Hills Alliance, worry about that. Kuechle says the county should require the company to monitor and minimize drilling's effect on people.

Kuechle: I don't think, if they are jeopardizing health and safety of people in the neighborhood, that they should be able to continue doing that just because they did it in the past and people were too naive to complain about it. If they're jeopardizing our health and safety, that needs to be fixed.

Peterson: Plains Exploration officials declined an interview request for this story. In e-mailed documents, the company notes that some Culver City and L.A. landowners stand to gain millions of dollars in royalties for drilling on their properties. The prospect of a thousand new wells is pretty slim, company officials say, adding that it'll probably apply for half that number.

Kuechle and the Greater Baldwin Hills Alliance say they don't oppose all future drilling; they just want more time to study the issues. But with the county's ban expired, Supervisor Burke says it's better to move forward now than to wait and see what Plains Exploration, also known as PXP, will do.

Burke: We really cannot go forward with a situation where PXP can start applying for oil wells (in) unlimited numbers. I think they understand that. And we also realize that we have to come forward with some method to use the highest technology to protect the public. We have to.

Peterson: PXP has agreed not to apply for more drilling until at least a couple of months from now. If L.A. County planners keep to the current schedule, that's about when the issue will surface before the board of supervisors... and Supervisor Burke will have her last opportunity before her term ends to vote on the issue.