An End to Inglewood Oil Field?
To the delight of community activists in the room, the newly elected Culver City Council took action at its June 20th meeting to begin planning for a phase-out of oil drilling operations at the Inglewood Oil Field (IOF). The decision marks a significant alteration of the path laid out by the previous city council.
Although only 10% of the oil field is in Culver City, it is one of the largest urban oil fields in the United States, covering over 1,000 acres. Having an oil field as a neighbor has never been popular; in fact, community resistance to its operation has been long and sustained.
Culver City is not alone in its resistance to oil production. In 2015 the Liberty Hill Foundation published the report: Drilling Down: the Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles stating that “from South Los Angeles to Baldwin Hills to the Harbor area, neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles are on the frontline of an epic debate about our energy future.”
With new leadership on the city council and the opportunity to consider the highest and best use of our land during the General Plan update process, the voice of community residents has a chance to be more carefully attended.
For the last four years, the city has been involved in the process of developing a Specific Plan for the IOF. A Specific Plan is a regulatory tool local governments use to implement the General Plan and guide development in a specific geographic area. Part of this process involves developing Drilling Regulations and developing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
City staff worked with a consultant to prepare a draft EIR and held community meetings to explain the report to the public and solicit comments. Given the many concerns raised by the public, the city council decided to extend the period for accepting comments to March 14.
After the new council was sworn in, Vice Mayor Sahli-Wells and Councilmember Alex Fisch were appointed to the Oil Drilling Subcommittee. A City Council meeting was held on June 20th, so that city staff could provide a report on public comment in the Draft EIR and so that recommendations from the Oil Drilling Subcommittee could be presented.
As expected, staff reported that public comment was focused on three key demands:
- Increasing setbacks to 2,500 feet
- Require a $2.5 billion disaster and surety bond
- Require an assessment of environmental and social justice impacts of the project
Sahli-Wells summarized the community response by saying, “In order to truly protect people and the environment, drilling should be phased out altogether.”
After listening to the community and analyzing the situation, Sahli-Wells and Fisch presented the recommendation of the IOF Subcommittee to:
- Put the previous plan on hold for staff respond to all the public comments, (which included many thousands of individual items)
- To hire a consultant to research amortization such that the IOF landowner and operator can recuperate their investment
- To coordinate with the Community Development Department on land use issues and finding outside partners to foster sustainability and explore clean energy alternatives
Sahli-Wells, who has been working on this issue since she was elected to city council six years ago, contextualized the recommendations by speaking to how much the landscape has changed. She explained that new regulations have been enacted, new regulatory bodies have been formed, and new health impact studies have been published, bringing negative impacts of the IOF to the fore of community concerns.
The other member of the subcommittee, Fisch, made the case for how the city is within its right to act in this manner. “I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more non-conforming use than an oil field in our neighborhoods.” He added, “In California, cities can regulate land uses in their borders and can…give a deadline for a non-conforming use to stop its operation and clear out. There’s growing evidence that it poses a significant threat to public health, safety, and welfare.”
Community Members Spoke Passionately about the Health Risks
Community resident Terry Silberman, who holds a doctorate in public health from UCLA, supported the subcommittee recommendations. She asked the city to stop all techniques known as ‘fracking’ (oil stimulation, ‘enhanced’ oil recovery, wastewater injection) and to stop issuing permits for new wells. She stated that oil drilling and extraction operations “continue to expose us all to elevated levels of toxic air contaminants and put our community at risk of a wide range of serious health effects, including respiratory disease, adverse birth outcomes, leukemia, and different types of cancers.” She emphasized how critical it is for the city to continue to monitor air quality levels closely during the phase-out period.
Culver City Unified School District Board Vice President Kelly Kent, a neuroscientist who sits on the School Board’s subcommittee on the Oil Field, also stressed the need for stronger regulations. She cited a review of empirical studies which demonstrated that oil production at every stage increased exposure to elevated concentrations of pollutants and concluded, ”young children that experience frequent exposure to these pollutants are at particularly high risk for chronic neurological diseases.”
Suzanne DeBenedittis, one of the most consistent and vocal community advocates on this issue, expressed concern about the validity of claims made by Sentinel Peak Services (the operator of the oil field) regarding carcinogenic exposure levels. She recommended that the city require, as a prerequisite to ongoing operations, evidence-based independent testing to determine that current mitigations are at levels the operators claim. Should the operator resist this requirement, De Benedittis stated that it was the fiduciary duty of the Council to demand that the operator cease and desist from all drilling and pumping activities, “until they can substantiate that their operations indeed do no harm.”
Dr. David Haake, a resident, and Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Clean Break Committee Chair echoed the concerns about the health risks for residents and workers, and the need for monitoring. He explained why this was personal to him, “Since I moved to Culver City 29 years ago, I have had two wives die of cancer. If you live in Culver city, particularly if you live near the oil field, you are also at risk as long as oil extraction continues.” He added, “Other cities have protected their citizens from oil extraction. Culver City should too.”
Environmental and Social Justice Advocates Join Community Advocates
The concerns shared by community members were echoed by environmental groups and advocates who have been active on this issue.
Monica Embrey, Senior Campaign Representative of Sierra Club’s “Beyond Dirty Fuels” campaign said, “The result of last night’s vote is a testament to the power of communities fighting back against the interests of corporate polluters that threaten their health and safety. We applaud the City Council for this important step towards protecting Culver City residents from the dangers of neighborhood oil drilling.”
“The city councilmembers took a bold step to protect the people of Culver City from dirty and dangerous oil drilling,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Culver City is showing what it looks like to put public health and safety above oil industry profits. I hope Governor Brown is watching.
Respecting Tongva Cultural Resources
Restoration and remediation of the land where the oil field is located raises another important issue, which was addressed by Geneva EB Thompson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a resident who lives near the oil field, and a staff attorney at the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. Thompson spoke to the importance of the City Council respecting the Tongva nations and their cultural resources located in and near the Inglewood Oil Field. She asked that the City ensure that that the fifteen cultural resources that are located just outside the project area are protected from harm, that the Tongva people are provided access to visit them, and during restoration, that the appropriate technology is used to identify tribal cultural resources.
Councilmember Lee spoke strongly in support of the City re-initiating government-to-government consultation with the Tongva nations in order to preserve indigenous resources and sacred sites.
Newly elected Councilmember Daniel Lee also said, “I hope that as we seek to wind down oil operations, we also find ways to… encourage the development of clean energy infrastructure, such as wind and solar while the necessary remediation takes place, in order to consider opening the area up to more community uses.”
While the Environmental Quality Act requires that an EIR include a study of project alternatives that could potentially avoid or lessen the significant environmental impacts, doing away with the oil field altogether opens the door to other alternatives.
Culver City resident Angus Alexander described the possibilities offered by citing New York City’s Central Park as an environmentally friendly park, on the site presently occupied by the oil field.
Alexander explained that this is one of the most park-poor regions in the U.S. with barely an acre of parkland presently, especially considering that there are 55 schools, 60 churches and dozens of community organizations within a five-mile radius of the land. He argued turning the area into a park would build on the popularity of our local trails and could also result in increased property values, economic generation, and more job opportunities than the IOF ever could.
In presenting the subcommittee’s decision, Vice Mayor Sahli-Wells answered the question on every audience member’s mind when she said, “It just so happens that we are working on our General Plan, which is the Constitution for development in our City, so this is the perfect timing for us as a community to come together and envision what it is that we want this land to be.”
Many community members have been waiting for the conversation about what might happen on the oil field. Former Mayor Gary Silbiger suggested that this is what made the amortization the critical part of the recommendation. As he stated, “what is most important is a quick timetable.”
Mayor Thomas Small agreed, “This is an urgent and critical issue that has rallied our community and unified our city. We can bring all of our stakeholders: residents, businesses, property owners, Chamber of Commerce and School District to collaborate on finding the best future for the oilfield and our community. This is a huge opportunity for our quality of life and our economy, and the first step toward a healthy and more sustainable future.”