Environment & Science

LA cracks down on urban oil drilling near USC

Houses sit less than an armspan away from the fence line for the Jefferson Drill Site, along Budlong Avenue in South Los Angeles.
Houses sit less than an armspan away from the fence line for the Jefferson Drill Site, along Budlong Avenue in South Los Angeles.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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The City of Los Angeles recently slapped some of the toughest restrictions yet on an urban oil and gas site. The decision comes in response to years of complaints about noise, bad smells and the occasional misting of oil onto cars and homes. It's also part of a broader trend toward clamping down on drilling within the city.

In June 2016, the environmental law firm Earthjustice collected residents’ stories and presented them to the Department of City Planning. The idea was to show that the site had become a nuisance to the community.

The drilling site, on Jefferson Boulevard just west of the University of Southern California, contains 36 oil wells that are within 60 feet of occupied multi-unit apartment buildings. A low wall separates them, and there is no noise buffer, vapor capture or enclosure around the site. As part of its petition to the city, Earthjustice found that other urban oil sites located further from homes had stricter regulations. One 43-well site on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive in West L.A. is fully enclosed, noise levels are capped and a quieter, electric drilling rig is required instead of diesel, among other conditions.

“The low-income community-of-color in South Los Angeles where the Jefferson Drill Site is located is entitled, both as a matter of law and as a matter of equity, to receive the same protections that have been afforded to the whiter, wealthier residents near the Doheny Site,” the law firm wrote in its petition.

On October 13, the city’s planning department agreed, finding that the current regulations operator Sentinel Peak Resources must comply with “are not sufficient to preserve the health, safety and general welfare of the nearby residential neighborhood.”

Going forward, the company must install a number of new systems: one that continually monitors noise, vibration and records video, another that measures air quality on the perimeter of the property, and a third that captures emissions. The operator also has to point its lighting down and build its walls higher to better enclose the site.

Uduak-Joe Ntuk, L.A.’s petroleum administrator, said the decision was likely to anger both the oil industry and community activists who wanted the site shut down completely.

“I’m trying to find the middle ground,” he said. “What can we do with our land use authority to make sure communities feel safe and companies are operating with the best available technologies and monitoring procedures.”

But Richard Parks, president of the Reedemer Community Partnership, a community development non-profit in South LA that has been outspoken against the Jefferson oil site, said he was relieved.

“There’s growing awareness that drilling is incompatible with neighborhoods,” he said.

Indeed, the decision comes as urban oil and gas is under increased scrutiny in Los Angeles. A 2015 lawsuit alleging racially discriminatory practices in permitting oil wells resulted in new practices at the city planning department. Last summer, the city attorney’s office penalized a nearby operator, AllenCo Energy, requiring it to meet similar strict conditions before they could re-open. And at the request of the city council, L.A.’s new petroleum administrator is currently studying what it would take to phase out drilling entirely within the city.

Sentinel Peak did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the California Independent Petroleum Association declined to speak on the record about the decision because they are involved in a lawsuit against the city related to oil permitting issues. The new requirements take effect October 30 unless the company appeals.