When it comes to blocking oil and gas drilling, the Golden State has sometimes fallen short of its deep green reputation. But that may be changing after supervisors in Los Angeles County unanimously voted on Wednesday to end oil and gas drilling in the county’s unincorporated areas. 

The move puts the nation’s most populous county on the path to becoming the first in the U.S. to ban existing oil and gas drilling. Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who made the motion along with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, said the measure would help address climate and equity issues. Though there is not yet a timeline for revoking existing drilling permits, the vote could take more than 1,600 oil wells offline, including those that are located in the expansive Inglewood Oil Field, one of the largest urban drilling sites in the country. 

“There are tens of thousands of people who live in very close proximity to oil wells, 73 percent of whom are people of color,” Mitchell told the Washington Post

Holly Mitchell
State Senator Holly Mitchell, who introduced the motion to phase out oil and gas drilling in L.A. County’s unincorporated areas. AP Photo / Damien Dovarganes

Community members living near the Inglewood Oil Field have long raised concerns about its potential impact on their health, pointing to studies that link oil and gas infrastructure to higher rates of asthma attacks, cancer, general hospitalization, high-risk pregnancies, and preterm birth. According to one analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity, oil and gas wells within 1,500 feet of L.A. County homes, schools, and health care facilities emitted hazardous air pollutants 483 times between June 2013 and February 2017. In April, a spill at the Inglewood Oil Field leaked more than 1,600 gallons of oil into nearby neighborhoods. (Spills were also reported at Inglewood in 2018 and 2019.)

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“There’s no safe distance between a community and these explosions or leaks,” said Martha Dina Arguëllo, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A. She added that the recent vote from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors was “a clear message to communities that their lungs and their health is valued.”

The California Independent Petroleum Association disagreed with that interpretation. In a letter sent to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and forwarded to Grist in response to a request for comment, the group — which counts some 500 of the state’s oil and gas companies among its members — said the move would make California more reliant on imported oil, raise gas prices, and eliminate hundreds of jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

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Environmental advocacy groups, however, saw the Los Angeles County vote as an important step toward getting California to wind down the state’s oil and gas industry. For years, many activists have been frustrated with statewide failures to meaningfully regulate and peter out California’s oil and gas industry. Even though Governor Gavin Newsom has publicly called for more urgent climate action — he famously called global warming a “climate damn emergency” after visiting a Butte County fire zone in 2020 — his administration has approved more than 9,000 oil and gas permits on state lands, and has been slow to phase out hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

According to Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, these so-called “failures” began far before Newom’s tenure as governor. “Over the past 150 years, the oil and gas industry has been allowed to drill at will,” she told Grist. “They do what they want, and the state has rolled out the red carpet for them.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups have also criticized state lawmakers for not requiring setbacks — a minimum distance between drilling operations and the places where people live, work, and play. Other oil-producing states including Louisiana, Maryland, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Texas already require setbacks for many populated areas, but California has not yet followed suit. In the past two years alone, two statewide efforts to impose setbacks — AB 345 in 2020 and SB 467 earlier this year — were rejected by the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources on Water.

Some advocates say these roadblocks are a result of the oil industry’s aggressive lobbying. The state’s top four oil industry lobbying groups pumped more than $10 million in lobbying dollars into California politics in 2020 alone, and many of the abstentions or downvotes on the setbacks came from state senators who have received thousands of campaign dollars from the oil and gas industry during their careers. California legislators are “unwilling to act on environmental justice and prioritize communities over polluters, said Caroline Henderson, a senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace, in a statement following the failure of SB 467.

The L.A. County vote may be an expression of that frustration, according to Siegel. Where statewide action has stalled, she said, several county and municipal lawmakers are stepping up. Counties like Monterey, Alameda, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Mendocino, and Butte all moved to ban fracking in their jurisdictions years ago, even before Newsom was governor. More recently, cities including Petaluma, Arvin, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz have either passed setback requirements or blocked plans for new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. One of the most far-reaching moves came from Culver City in 2020, when the city council unanimously voted to phase out oil and gas production and enact a just transition for industry workers within five years.

“These local leaders have decided to stand up to the oil industry and protect people rather than polluters,” Siegel said.

However, she and others stressed that municipalities are not political monoliths on this issue. Maro Kakoussian, the air and climate justice associate for Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A., noted that a coalition of environmental justice organizations had been pushing for an oil and gas phaseout in the City of Los Angeles for nearly seven years. “The L.A. City has failed to move with the clarity and focus that the Board of Supervisors brought yesterday,” she said. 

While Arguëllo of Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A sees the county vote as progress, she added that local action is no substitute for more far-reaching measures at the state level. 

“We need real commitments to stop issuing permits and institute setbacks as an immediate protection for public health,” she said. “Now is the moment to get serious about this goal to stop oil drilling in the state of California and set up a just transition for oil workers that incorporates protections for communities where they live and breathe.”