In the US’ Second Largest City, Oil Infrastructure is a “Normal” Part of the Landscape. Grassroots Activists are Trying to Change That.
Photographs by Heather Cleary
The story of the rise and fall of Edward Doheny, the first oil baron of Southern California, would seem the archetype of a L.A. noir tale: A man rises from rags to riches and presents a veneer of respectability to the outside world, but behind closed doors lurks corruption, even violence. Elaborate stagecraft – Hollywood’s specialty – hides the machinery and political machinations that fuel what boosters like to call “progress.” A kind of prosperity veils danger. Here’s how the story goes:
In 1892 Doheny, a failed silver prospector from New Mexico starting over in Los Angeles, observed a cart full of a foul-smelling brown substance – brea, or pitch – moving down the street. He soon found the source near what is now MacArthur Park, a Latino neighborhood north of downtown. “My heart beat fast,” Doheny later recalled. “I had found gold and I had found silver, and I had found lead, but this ugly looking substance … was the key to something more valuable than any or all of these metals.” By the 1920s Doheny ranked among the world’s richest men. The “Emperor of Oil” some people called him.
Then he got busted in the Tea Pot Dome Scandal. Doheny gave Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall $100,000 in exchange for transferring the Elks River oil reservoir in Kern County, north of L.A., from the control of the US Navy to the Interior Department, from which Doheny obtained leases to drill. The cash was delivered to Secretary Fall by Doheny’s son, Ned, and Ned’s sidekick, Hugh Plunkett. Federal criminal prosecutors charged Doheny and Fall with bribery, and eventually federal civil courts found the leases a violation of the Mineral Leasing Act. Fall went to jail. Doheny walked free, but his March 1929 acquittal came too late. A month earlier Hugh Plunkett had shot Ned to death and then killed himself. Edward Doheny, financially broken and heartsick, died in 1935. His three-story mansion in South L.A. – 8 Chester Place – and the surrounding land eventually went to the Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles and became the St. Mary’s College campus.
This dark saga of L.A. oil – the making and unmaking of elaborate facades – is not over. For decades companies pumped oil and natural gas from a small well pad on former Doheny land sandwiched between St. Paul’s Cathedral and a St. Mary’s College parking structure, leasing it from the Catholic archdiocese. Then, in the 1990s production stopped, as it did in many other L.A. urban oil fields. Existing extraction technology could not profitably recover any more petroleum. In 2009, though, new well stimulation techniques started to appear across Southern California, and the oil well on the old Doheny property was brought back into service.
On rare occasions the oil companies used high-pressure injection of water and chemicals – hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking – to get at the oil. More often they used a technique called “well acidizing.” When an old oil or gas well is first treated, it typically requires 1,000 gallons of a solution containing water and 20 percent hydrochloric acid (an air toxic) for every foot of well pipe. Injected under pressure (but not as high pressure as in fracking), this fluid permeates a strata of rock roughly 200 feet long by 20 feet high and 20 feet wide, dissolving rock and mud and thus enhancing oil or gas flow. To keep the pipes clear from dissolved mineral deposits and sand, operators also routinely conduct “maintenance acidizing” and “gravel packing,” the pressured injection of gravel and crystal silica (another air toxic).
An oil company called Allenco Energy acidized the wells near the old Doheny estate for years before anyone grasped what was happening. The well pad is not visible from the street. It is situated behind a wrought-iron fence behind which grows a wide lawn laced with palm trees. Beyond that stands a 10-foot-tall brick and stucco wall. People in the community considered it a “normal” part of the urban landscape. Many thought that behind the beige wall stood just another one of the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s many facilities.
Then people began to get sick, and community organizers started agitating, providing the latest twist to what has become a perfectly L.A. story: Ground zero for the new Southern California resistance to the oil industry is the former estate of the region’s first petroleum mogul.
It was 2010 when people in the neighborhood started to notice the odors. The air reeked with rotten egg smell and super sweet scents like cotton candy or overripe, decaying guavas – a popular metaphor in the mainly poor and working class Latino area. A wave of maladies swept through crowded apartment houses: watery eyes, nausea, dizziness and visual disorientation, headaches as sharp as skewers lanced through the brain. Children increasingly missed school. Workers lost badly needed pay as some adults developed asthma.
In March 2011, Monic Uriarte, an employee of Esperanza Community Housing, and her daughter found the gate to the facility open and walked inside. Warmly greeted by the employees, they got a grand tour. An Allenco worker explained, “This is Mother Nature’s gift to us.”
Uriarte immediately told her boss, Esperanza’s executive director, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, what she had seen. Ibrahim and her staff connected the dots: The sweet smells came from additives to the natural gas; the rotten smell indicated hydrogen sulfide; the big tanker trucks that had been tearing up the streets and sidewalks were bringing water and hydrochloric acid for well stimulation and maintenance. The illnesses in the community likely came from these chemical mixes, volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons released by drilling, and whatever fumes were emitted when Allenco pumped the “produced” (or used) water and acid back underground. At subsequent community meetings, no one at Esperanza was impressed by Allenco’s presentations, which were laced with condescension. “Don’t you enjoy cooking with gas, Sweetie? We’ll provide a service to you, Sweetie.”
In L.A. County there are 3,700 fossil fuel wells and 2,000 miles of oil pipelines.
Many community groups might mobilize when faced with such danger, but few could function at Esperanza Community Housing’s level. The organization owns five apartment buildings in the neighborhood, former single occupancy tenements built in the early twentieth century that Esperanza remodeled to rent to low-income families. Ibrahim arrived at Esperanza in 1995 when she was 40 years old to become its health director. Educated with a master’s degree in public health, her first mission was to survey all 1,700 residences in the census tract, looking for lead paint, and testing everyone’s blood for lead poisoning. During the following years, Esperanza trained a vast cadre of community health workers. Now, the organization tapped into its health worker network to identify and quantify the impacts from the new oil drilling. One survey question, Ibrahim says, showed that many residents “who had been here for ages did not know the source of the strange smells.”
“We began to train the community how to file a regulatory complaint with a California Air Quality Management District,” Ibrahim says. “We’d call the AQMD – a California air quality agency – and we’d get different answers on how many separate complaints we had to file to get an AQMD inspector out to investigate. They’d tell us: ‘We need six people, we need nine people, we need 11 people not from the same household.’ If the smell wasn’t present when the inspector arrived, they would not file a complaint.” Nor would the inspectors file a complaint against Allenco on the basis of widespread nosebleeds. “We don’t know if the nosebleeds are related,” AQMD inspectors said. Ibrahim became increasingly frustrated. “Toxics destroy the sense of smell. If you are living in it 24/7, you won’t be able to smell it anymore,” she says.
On September 5, 2012 Esperanza launched a public campaign against the oil drilling. From one of the residential buildings directly across the street from the well pad the group unfurled banners that read, in English and Spanish, “People, not poisons.” In front of the apartment building, Esperanza placed eight Styrofoam heads, each with an artistic rendition of a common illness from the oil drilling – skewers running through the skull, circling stars, pounding headaches. It was “very visual, very shocking, and very upsetting,” Ibrahim says. The media ate it up.
US Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat known for her environmental advocacy, saw some of the coverage and asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. Three EPA inspectors showed up at the well pad in November 2013. All three immediately became ill from the fumes. The EPA told the company it needed to make $700,000 worth of modifications to comply with federal regulations and fined it $99,000 for violating Clean Air Act regulations. Allenco decided to close the operation while it began to make the required changes. But the organizers at Esperanza felt they had won only a temporary victory. “We have not permanently shut them down, “ Ibrahim says. “It’s in limbo.”
Los Angeles projects itself as a theme park of movie stars, ocean surf, and sunshine. Think of the lovely pictures of Santa Monica Bay broadcast every year during the Rose Bowl Parade or the glamorous emblem of the Hollywood sign. Yet underneath and behind the beauty and glitz, the city and county of Los Angeles function as a gigantic oil field and processing facility.
Los Angeles County is home to more than 9 million people, sprawling across nearly 700 square miles, and including not just L.A. but also the cities of Burbank, Long Beach, Pasadena, and others. Within this metropolis exist some 3,700 active fossil fuel wells. Together, they extract 24 million barrels of oil each year and 18 million cubic feet of natural gas. Ten of California’s 20 oil refineries are in L.A. County, processing 40 million barrels of oil each month that are shipped in from across the nation and around the world. The California State Fire Marshall reports that 2,000 miles of major petroleum pipelines underlie the county, while the federal government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration tallies 681 miles of large-bore natural gas pipes. Just as L.A. has developed its own culture of food trucks, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, and alluring entertainment and high tech industries, so, too, has the city created a unique oil aesthetic.
But now L.A.’s oil industry – long considered a source of wealth and a normal and distinctive part of the urban landscape – is increasingly challenged as a threat to public health and safety. A loose network of activists, spurred to action by the boom in unconventional drilling techniques and oil field modernization, is tugging at the mask that the industry hides behind.
Esperanza’s success in the fall of 2013, however tentative, helped inspire a broad range of similar challenges to the oil and gas companies. At one level, the victory meant L.A. activists now felt more firmly connected to the wider national and global movements to move beyond fossil fuel. Urban drilling – especially the new forms of well stimulation – was just too hazardous to public health to remain unchallenged. At the same time, the Esperanza story revealed a signature feature of Los Angeles oil fields and facilities – the ways in which they have become “normalized” and accepted. It has taken the residents of Los Angeles years to awaken from what you could call the “visual anesthesia” created by high walls and lovely landscaping.
The disguised Allenco wells are just one oil site among many similarly camouflaged. To name just a few examples: Near the upscale Beverly Center on La Cienega Boulevard is a pad with 40 wells cloaked by a high wall. The sprawling Veterans Administration Compound in West Los Angeles hides 18 wells. L.A.’s historic Jewish section contains both a faux synagogue-esque building surrounded by flagstone walls and a seven-story office-building façade, complete with a lobby. The “synagogue” hides 40 active wells while the “office building” holds 28. In some places, dense foliage serves as a disguise. Both the Hillcrest Country Club and L.A.’s Rancho Park Golf Course contain oil pads that are rendered almost invisible by thick strands of bushes and trees. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the reasoning.
More often, landscaping doesn’t really hide derricks or pumpjacks, but instead serves to normalize them. It is no accident that the most common vegetation planted around the county’s wells is the palm tree. Spanish priests who founded California’s missions in the eighteenth century first imported palms, which signified the creation of a new Holy Land. In the 1870s and 1880s, real estate developers seized upon palm trees as markers of Los Angeles as a warm, semitropical paradise, the new desert Eden. The second most common tree adorning L.A.’s oil fields is the blue gum eucalyptus. Native to Australia, it was imported in the 1870s as an air purifier. One of Southern California’s most successful real estate speculators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, planted eucalyptus trees all over his lands – including what later became Los Angeles County’s largest drilling site, the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field in Baldwin Hills. Today that site still has more than 1,400 active wells producing as much as 3.1 million barrels a year.
The dreams of L.A. as a subtropical Eden eventually faded – or were obscured in the haze of 1960s smog – but in the meantime palm and eucalyptus trees became culturally native. The palm and eucalyptus trees coded the oil derricks, pumpjacks, and storage tanks with the same connotation: Don’t worry, oil wells belong here just like the trees belong here. Oil is normal.
Normalization of oil wells and facilities also occurs when adjacent businesses give the well an aura that they are simply part of everyday life. L.A. County does not have “setback” requirements, meaning that oil wells, businesses, and homes often coexist in close proximity. In Signal Hill, for example, a pumpjack works within 20 feet of a McDonald’s drive-through window.
Some oil companies decorate their equipment to change what it signifies. At the big Tesoro refinery just west of the I-405 in Carson, a huge American flag drapes the facility. At Beverly Hills High School, a 165-foot derrick rises above the manicured grounds of the school made famous by the TV show 90210. The derrick is covered with brightly colored paintings – mostly flowers – done by terminally ill children and placed on plates that make the rig soundproof. Venoco, the owner of the facility, calls it the “Tower of Hope.” (In the 1990s, tests conducted at the site, which is adjacent to the school’s athletic field, found significant emissions of benzene and methane, leading to a raft of lawsuits eventually dismissed by a judge. More recently, as part of the growing revolt against urban oil operations, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to not to renew Venoco’s lease when it expires at the end of 2016.)
Occasionally the oil industry’s footprint cannot be completely eliminated from view, and the challenge for the industry is how visible damage can be made to seem minor. To take just one example: At the Windsor Hills Math Science School, located just east of the massive Inglewood Oil Field, a thick, dark patch of asphalt 20 feet wide and 250 feet-long zigzags through the playground. The asphalt is covering up a fissure in the ground that likely has been caused by the nearby oil drilling. Along the eastern boundary of the Inglewood Oil Field runs a spur of the Newport-Inglewood fault, a fault that geologists estimate is capable of generating a 6.0 to 7.4 earthquake. The 1,400 active wells in the Inglewood Oil Field exacerbate the stresses on the fault, creating up to three inches of vertical movement in the surrounding land each year. As the pumpjacks take oil out, the land subsides; when the oil companies inject water and acid to stimulate the wells, the ground rises. Eventually, all the movement causes large cracks in the earth. “The aesthetic repaving treatment – out of sight, out of mind – of this industrial oil field operation is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” says a local watchdog, Paul Ferrazzi of the Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. “The lives of 660 students and teachers are at risk. It’s gross negligence, if not outright criminal.”
Ten miles east of downtown Los Angeles, in the small city of Montebello, the international mining corporation Freeport McMoRan is planning an ambitious – one could say audacious – advancement in the art of “out of sight, out of mind” oil field normalization. In 2013 the company bought the Montebello Oil Field, one of California’s oldest, first discovered in 1917 by Standard Oil on land owned by Lucky Baldwin. Since then, some 200 million barrels of oil have been produced from Montebello, about 1,500 barrels a day. Located in the region’s highest hills and adjacent to the original site of Mission San Gabriel, the field currently contains 96 active oil wells, 46 water-injection wells, and 122 wells that are idled or abandoned. If its plans are approved by the City of Montebello this spring, Freeport McMoRan wants to abandon the entire oil field while constructing a new, and better disguised, oil facility at the edge of a proposed new housing development.
The three Montebello Hills – Montebello means “beautiful hills” in Italian – will be treated like coal mountains in Appalachia. The top of each of the 600-foot-high hills will be removed, displacing some six million cubic yards of earth, and in their place the developer plans to create three broad plateaus. These plateaus will become the site of the new Montebello Hills Community – 1,200 residences ranging from condos starting around $325,000 to 5,000-square-foot homes that will be sold for as much as $2 million. Cooke-Hill, the community’s master developer, advertises it as an ecological paradise. The homes and condos will all be energy efficient and have Energy Star rated appliances. Solar power will warm the community’s swimming pool. California gnatcatchers, a threatened species, will live in a 260-acre reserve at the base of the former hills (a requirement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife). An artificial wetland will catch stormwater runoff. “Let alone, nature does a great job purifying water,” says a poster in the developer’s real estate center.
But nature won’t be “let alone”; the oil extraction will continue. Along the edges of the development, Freeport McMoRan plans to build eight new oil well pads containing 79 new oil wells and 69 water-injection wells to pump 2,000 to 2,300 barrels of oil a day out of the ground. The well pads, covering about 10 acres, will be sunk slightly below the surface into concrete lined and steel-grid roofed “caverns.” That is, the wells will be underground and out of sight. Seven out of eight well pads will be built less than 1,500 feet from people’s homes – the threshold the Air Quality Management Districts designates as potentially hazardous for what it calls “sensitive receptors“ such as homes and schools. The planned residences and businesses will have vents adjacent to them to lead oilfield gases such as methane to the surface, and gas monitors inside the buildings in case the vents fail.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQA), builders are required to submit environmental impact reports before government entities like the city of Montebello can issue what are called “entitlements” to build. In 2009 the Montebello Hills draft EIRs became publicly available. Part of the city’s Latino and Anglo middle class found the project completely unacceptable and formed the Sierra Club’s Save the Montebello Hills task force.
Yvonne Watson, 52, had never been an activist before 2009, when she first heard about the Montebello Hills Community project. Angered at the potential loss of what she and others thought should become a regional park once the oil played out, Watson began to research the oil field on a California Department of Geological and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) website. DOGGR showed a map of the field with all well sites. She could see how close many of the existing wells are to the adjacent suburban homes at the base of the hills – some as near as 900 feet. Seeing all those wells reinforced her worries about what seemed to be unusually high rates of cancer in the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Watson found herself fascinated by the DOGGR mapping technology. “This is a nifty tool,” she said to herself. She then wondered, “How about where I used to live?”
Watson grew up in a working class home that was the first Latino family in Whittier, California, a small city 18 miles southeast of L.A.. “I almost fell over when I looked at my neighborhood and saw how it was nearly surrounded by the Santa Fe Springs Oil Field.” Memories came flooding back. “I grew up seeing oil well flares at Santa Fe Springs from my elementary school. We’d drive down Norwalk Boulevard in Whittier to Santa Fe Springs. It looked like Dante’s inferno at night. All you saw was skeletal machinery – pumpjacks, drilling towers with amber lights, active flaring of methane gas.” Utilizing a split computer screen between Google Earth and the DOGGR map, Watson saw that 15 feet from her grandfather’s restaurant in Santa Fe Springs was an abandoned well hidden under the concrete parking lot.
“I also learned that in the 1970s two investigators went to study the Santa Fe Springs Oil Field and found that 75 percent of them were leaking. Nobody told the neighborhood. We didn’t know anything. Then a light went off in my head. When I wasn’t at home or at school, I was at my grandfather’s restaurant. I started to wonder what I was exposed to. I had severe allergies and pre-asthma as a child, lung infections and chronic bronchitis in secondary school, and now as an adult I suffer from asthma.”
Watson says, “When I learned about Santa Fe Springs, it drew me deeper into Montebello. People need to know what the risks are.” Watson became the chief researcher for the Save the Montebello Hills task force and now works fulltime learning the ins and outs of L.A.’s urban oil fields.
In a 2009 review of the first environmental impact report, staffers at the Air Quality Management District pointed out that the oil well construction and operations will emit 459 pounds each day of nitrous oxide, the primary component of smog (and a cause of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses). That’s eight times the agency’s health threshold. AQMD staff also criticized the model used to predict the dispersion of diesel particulate matter from oil well machinery and the overall toxic emissions from the wells as outdated and inappropriate for the site. The developer’s own health risk assessment showed that cancer risks were 9.9 in 1 million, just within the AQMD significance threshold of 10 in 1 million. Agency staff urged the developer to use a more modern model better suited to predicting the air pollutant dispersion pattern from an oil field operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In 2014 the developer submitted an updated EIR, but did not change its computer model for a health risk assessment. When asked by Earth Island Journal what using a more modern computer model of local air pollution might show, an AQMD staffer replied, “It is likely the health impacts of the project have been underestimated.” But the AQMD cannot compel a developer to use its preferred computer model; its recommendations are advisory.
The CEQA review process legally mandates that there be “informed decision-making” by government officials. And for officials to make informed decisions, “the public needs to have a meaningful role,” says environmental attorney Sharon Duggan. Neither the 2009 nor 2014 EIRs were available in Spanish, not even executive summaries. According to the 2010 Census, in Montebello 79 percent of the population is Hispanic and 77 percent speak Spanish at home. Watson says, “The majority of our population is being denied the right to participate in these decisions.”
While Yvonne Watson and her allies fought – and continue to fight – Freeport McMoRan in the Montebello Hills, back in Los Angeles proper, the movement begun by the Esperanza community against Allenco spread across the city, and started to gain influential allies and lobby politicians. In March 2014, the Los Angeles City Council, spurred by this growing community resistance, unanimously passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on all forms of oil and gas well stimulation on the grounds that such practices, conducted with chemicals whose precise identities remain legal trade secrets, could endanger local water supplies. The city council directed the L.A. City Planning Department to come up with new zoning ordinances to implement the ban, and asked the City Attorney’s office to craft the appropriate language.
But last November the planning department informed the city council that a local ordinance banning well stimulation might be illegal. Compton, a city 11 miles south of L.A., had passed a nearly identical moratorium, and was now being sued by the Western States Petroleum Association on the grounds that local regulation of how a company produced oil infringed upon the powers granted to the state of California. Facing this legal assault, Compton rescinded its moratorium. The L.A. Planning Department, rather than chance a similar legal attack, recommended hiring outside consultants to devise a permitting and inspection plan – a process that will take years.
At first, shock and anger ran through Los Angeles environmental and community organizations. Soon, though, many activists privately concluded that the L.A. City Planning Department’s argument – that local regulations aimed at oil drilling techniques might be an infringement of California state law – was probably correct. More to the point, many environmental organizers began to doubt that a well-stimulation moratorium would protect people living near the drilling sites. Even if the moratorium encompassed well acidizing (46 percent of all well stimulations) and gravel packing (23 percent of well stimulations), oil companies could still drill and pump wells in urban areas.
All of this oil extraction poses health risks to residents. As the Montebello Hills case illustrates, drilling generates massive amounts of diesel particulate matter, or DPM. Drilling just the vertical part of one well produces up to 400 pounds of DPM as some 11 diesel engines run 24 hours a day for 19 days. Drilling also generates huge nitrogen oxide emissions, nearly 3,000 pounds for every vertical well drilled. According to the AQMD, from June 2013 to September 2014 almost half of all oil well drilling and well stimulation in Los Angeles County – some 429 “well events” as they are called – took place within 1,500 feet of homes, apartments, schools, and hospitals.
Adjacent businesses can give an oil well the aura that it’s simply part of everyday life.
Angela Johnson Meszaros, a 51-year-old, highly regarded attorney with the Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, works as a point person in L.A.’s drilling watchdog movement as it tries to determine what to do next. “We’re trying to deal with each individual site,” she says, explaining that the various forms of oil field normalization often still work. Even in affected neighborhoods, many people don’t see oil’s footprints near them. “When I take people around and show them these pumpjacks, they are shocked, telling me, ‘I never noticed that before.’”
Asked what she thinks the ultimate objective of L.A.’s anti-drilling and public health movement should be, Meszaros is quite clear: “We’re advocating shutting down urban oil. The costs of using fossil fuels are not acceptable.” It is unlikely, however, that oil well activity now taking place near residences in dense L.A. neighborhoods will be shut down or relocated in the near future. At the very least, though, a new ordinance could demand large setbacks from homes. “I think the best approach is a land-based buffer,” Meszaros says, noting that the City of Dallas passed a 1,500-foot drilling buffer in December 2013. Over time, a 1,500-foot setback requirement would mean that when wells this close to residences needed to be redrilled or reworked, Los Angeles could conceivably deny the oil companies permits, making continued oil and gas production at these urban sites inefficient and thus more likely to be abandoned. In legal terms, this approach relies upon the “policing powers” each municipality has to protect the health and safety of its citizens, and so has a better chance of withstanding legal challenge by the oil industry. “We’re going to drag L.A. into the twenty-first century,” Meszaros says.
A city built on oil may not be ready to run the fossil fuel industry out of town quite yet. But at the very least it can ensure that the oil wells so cleverly hidden and normalized for decades will no longer be able to hide from public scrutiny and pressure. The era of L.A.’s oil aesthetic –“out of sight, out of mind” – is over.
L.A. area resident James William Gibson is a frequent contributor to the Journal. He last wrote about the unfolding water war in Texas.
Heather Cleary is a Los Angeles -based photographer and artist.
Corrections: This article has been edited to fix the following errors: Nancy Halperin Ibrahim arrived in the United States in 1995 as a 40 year old, not in 1985 as a 30 year old. The Air Quality Management District is not a subdivision of the Air Resources Board.