Historic Environmental Justice Victory: City of Los Angeles is creating a pathway to phase out existing oil and gas wells
“I hope that our health isn't determined by our zip code, race, ethnicity, income, and other identities. I am hoping that one day we can have healthier communities.”
-Wendy Miranda, a community leader with Communities for a Better Environment and Wilmington, CA resident
At Just Solutions Collective, we are working to broaden and deepen the understanding of equitable and effective policies and projects to build the capacity of communities to replicate, scale, and build support for justice-centered solutions. We took a deeper look at how frontline communities in Los Angeles, a city built on the world’s largest urban oil field, mobilized for a ban on new oil drilling and begin phasing out existing wells in their city. We spoke with Wendy Miranda (she/they) a community leader with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and Wilmington resident, about the historic victory.
About the Ordinance in Los Angeles
In January 2022, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to draft an ordinance to prohibit all new oil and gas drilling and to phase out existing drilling operations throughout the City of Los Angeles. The vote will direct the City Planning Department to draft an ordinance declaring oil and gas extraction a non-conforming land use throughout Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City oil drilling phase-out motion language is available here as agenda item #24. The ordinance is to include:
- A study to determine the phase out-period.
- A plan to plug and remediate inactive wells.
- Direction to the City of Los Angeles to participate in the L.A. County's Just Transition Taskforce to ensure an equitable transition plan for impacted oil workers.
This victory was made possible by residents, community organizations, and health care practitioners that have organized for over a decade to protect the health of residents on the front lines of urban oil extraction. Together they formed the Standing Together Against Neighborhood Drilling -LA (STAND LA) coalition, in which Communities for a Better Environment is a founding member.
The role and power of frontline communities
Wendy Miranda grew up in Wilmington, California, home to the Port of Los Angeles, oil refineries, and the largest number of oil and gas extraction wells in the City of Los Angeles (1). When Miranda was 15 years old she joined a running club in high school to train for the Los Angeles Marathon. She ran throughout her neighborhood of Wilmington for about four years. When she was 19 years old, she noticed that running became more difficult for her to do, “I would stop and wheeze so much, I felt like I was passing out and gasping for air”. The doctor told her that she had asthma and needed an inhaler before she runs. Miranda also shared that her mom was also diagnosed with asthma and uses a nebulizer machine multiple times a day. It is something you see a lot in the community, including nose bleeds, and headaches.
After learning more about the health impacts correlated with living near oil wells and its exposure to harmful pollution, some of which include asthma, respiratory disease, and cancer (2), Miranda became involved with the non-profit organization, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). As their Wilmington Community Intern, Miranda supported their community and youth organizing strategies.
January’s vote was a direct result of years of collective work by L.A. frontline communities, environmental justice advocates, and medical and health professionals. Representatives from different community organizations met as the STAND-L.A. coalition, where campaign strategies were community-led.
Community organizing played a key role in pressuring council members to put the motion onto the City Council committee agendas, specifically the Budget and Finance Committee and the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM). They accomplished this through various lobbying efforts, rallies, press conferences, petition collections, a wide range of community/organization endorsements, phone banking, and social media outreach. When the coalition had the opportunity to provide public comment to the City Council committee, Miranda shared how the coalition's arguments were very clear:
- Neighborhood oil drilling is a public health issue, “so many people we know are experiencing respiratory health issues, nosebleeds and headaches”
- Neighborhood oil drilling is a racial justice issue, “frontline communities who are experiencing these impacts are mostly Black and Brown people”.
- Neighborhood oil drilling is a climate change issue, “we need to transition out of fossil fuel and phasing out of oil drilling is the first step”.
- Phasing out of neighborhood oil drilling requires a Just Transition in ensuring there are programs for workers to have access to and training to secure clean jobs.
Overall, frontline residents providing public comments and sharing their personal experiences were some of the strongest and most powerful tactics. In addition, digital and virtual organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed more community members to participate in campaign events like a virtual town hall in March 2021 which helped spread awareness on the subject.
Local and National Policy Strategies
About 17 million people in the U.S. live within one mile of an active oil or gas well, 2.1 million of those people live in California (3). The Director of Research and Policy at CBE, Bahram Fazeli, shared recently with The New Yorker that wells were a better policy target since drilling is no longer the major employer in the area, he shared, “It’s a very, very manageable and smart way to start your just transition program…it’s a very good pilot program for that vision” (4). In addition, the city’s decision comes after a separate motion from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, voting to ban new drilling and phase out existing wells in the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County in September 2021. Similarly, in October 2021, Gavin Newsom’s administration announced a 3,200-foot setback from homes, schools, hospitals, and other sensitive locations for oil and gas operations in the state of California.
Federal, state, and local governments each regulate various aspects of oil and gas operations (5). State regulations vary from state to state and over time. In addition to California, other states across the U.S. have required a setback in oil and gas production near sensitive locations. Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas also have rules and setbacks about the proximity of oil wells to certain properties. Colorado requires a 1,000-foot setback from high occupancy buildings and a 2,000-foot setback on new oil drilling. Pennsylvania requires 500-foot setbacks from certain occupied locations. Texas requires a 467-foot setback from property lines; and various local governments in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico require setbacks ranging from 600 to 1,500 feet (6). Many states and local counties are considering similar setbacks or extending their existing setbacks. However, the City and County of Los Angeles are currently the only regions looking at all wells (future, active, and idle wells) which is a major difference from other setbacks in other states, which are mainly for new wells and don't cover active or abandoned wells. Other states also don't address just transition for the workers. Los Angeles and California’s policy framework is significant because they are creating a policy model that prioritizes the communities most impacted by pollution while shifting away from fossil fuel development into a just transition.
“We have learned that it isn't enough to pass a regulation but it is very critical to be at the table for the implementation component of changing policy.”
-Milton Hernandez Nimatuj, Southern California Program Director, CBE
STAND L.A. will continue to be part of the process to help draft an ordinance and direct the City of Los Angeles on how to lead a genuine community participation process. Miranda shares that this victory is proof that frontline communities can lead the change toward a just, equitable transition to a clean energy future. “This gives hope that this can alleviate some of the health issues we face and a step in the right direction. We need to hold our council members accountable to go through with the motion and continue to protect frontline communities”. Some words of advice from Miranda include, “Always put frontline residents first. This is something that the coalition did throughout every step, tying the issue back to frontline communities since they are being impacted the most”.
For more information, visit the STAND LA Virtual Toxic Tour Storymap, an interactive tour through LA's urban oil drilling sites, and the STAND LA webpage for campaign updates. Visit LA County’s Oil Well Ordinance for updates. The video-call interview with Wendy Miranda took place on March 11, 2022, this blog was reviewed by Milton Hernandez Nimatuj, Southern California Program Director, CBE.