Big City Oil

Looking out to the nearby marina from Playa del Rey’s neighborhood of hillside homes, one’s view is marred by a drab arrangement of industrial pipes and towering spires sprawling across the base of the hill. This assortment of industrial infrastructure nestled in the Ballona Wetlands houses a major hub of oil extraction and storage operated by Southern California Gas Co. It’s a gas storage facility that is only a few hundred feet from the doorsteps of multimillion-dollar houses, about a mile from Loyola Marymount University’s campus, and has been flagged as a site with potential to greatly impact residents and local ecosystems if a spill or leak ever occurs. 

• Listen: Tara Pixley on L.A.’s oil fields in the LMU Magazine Off Press podcast.

“There was a time you could sit on the bluff and see drilling that went from the Playa del Rey oil field up through Venice,” says Jason Jarvis, associate professor of communications in the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts who studies greenwashing. 

Living in the shadow of oil infrastructure like this is a reality for many Angelenos.

Venice was a key location in the initial 1920s California black gold rush, but it was also the place where the toxic effects of oil became more apparent, according to Jarvis. He says, “The oil was so plentiful in Venice for a while they let it run down the street, and then it ended up polluting the canals.”

One posted sign warns potential trespassers against entering the portion of the Ballona Wetlands owned by Southern California Gas Co., stating “Tampering with natural gas pipelines, valves and fittings is a felony punishable by fine and imprisonment.” A second sign warns of cancer-causing materials in the vicinity, with the multimillion-dollar homes of Playa del Rey visible in the background only a few hundred feet from oil storage facilities that now house natural gas reserves underground in the depleted Playa del Rey Oil Field.

Living in the shadow of oil infrastructure like this is a reality for many Angelenos who are located on the largest urban oil field in the United States. Nearly three million Los Angeles residents live on 28 oil fields containing 3,000 active wells, many unaware of the noxious sites’ effects on their communities. Though oil extraction, storage and transportation facilities are located all over the city, it is primarily Black and brown areas such as Inglewood and Wilmington that have long borne the brunt of oil infrastructure’s health and environmental impacts.

A 2021 USC study published in the journal Environmental Research reported that the respiratory health of residents in South Los Angeles decreased in relation to their homes’ proximity to oil wells. All of the 961 community participants identified as people of color, and the study found that “participants near active oil development reported significantly higher prevalence of wheezing, eye and nose irritation, sore throat and dizziness.” Researchers also discovered that in some cases living near an oil well could negatively affect residents’ lungs more than living beside a highway or daily exposure to secondhand smoke.

These kinds of health impacts are reflected in the experiences of Wilmington residents such as Magali Sanchez-Hall and Luz Gomez, both of whom have spent years in the predominantly working class Latinx suburb of Los Angeles where the rotten egg smell of oil drilling and refining caused by hydrogen sulfide are a common occurrence. The Wilmington community is a place where oil tanks are housed behind a Boys and Girls Club, and where families in the area report their children experience higher rates of asthma, nosebleeds and headaches — all common effects of proximity to oil and natural gas processing.

For years, Magali Sanchez-Hall has fought the persistent environmental racism experienced by her Southern California community of Wilmington. As a longtime resident of the Los Angeles neighborhood, she says she witnessed firsthand how her community is negatively impacted by oil infrastructure. Sanchez-Hall speaks of cancer clusters in her friend circles of Wilmington residents, unusually high rates of asthma and frequently unexplained nosebleeds and migraines ranging from young children to the elderly. Every part of oil infrastructure exists in Wilmington, Sanchez-Hall says, from drilling to refining to shipping out of the state. Magali uses knowledge gained from her UCLA master’s degree in urban planning to help lead activist efforts against the many sites of oil production throughout her predominantly working class Latinx town where the fumes and other toxic elements can be felt throughout the town.

The cost of handling orphan wells is often laid at the feet of taxpayers.

Living near oil wells and refineries can cause a host of health problems, many of which we are only just now starting to understand. Researchers across the country have previously tied preterm birth to unconventional oil drilling practices such as fracking and, in 2020, a Stanford study found that pregnant women living close to conventional oil and gas wells also experienced premature births. Life near oil wells means dealing with daily air and water pollution as well as noise pollution that can cause ongoing psychosocial stress. It also means being at greater risk from environmental catastrophes like oil spills and earthquakes. 

Nalleli Cobo spent a decade of her childhood living directly across from the AllenCo Energy oil site in the University Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. At a very young age, Cobo recalls experiencing overwhelming odors coming from the site, and around the same time, she became prone to frequent stomachaches, headaches and nosebleeds so bad she would have to sleep sitting up so as not to drown in her own blood. After learning of how oil drilling can cause these exact ailments, Cobo at age 9 joined the statewide fight against oil production near where people live and has continued to be a vocal environmental and social justice activist. Cobo, her mother and residents of her building fought AllenCo until the site was shut down. In 2020, Cobo was diagnosed with a rare cancer so severe she was forced to remove most of her reproductive organs.

Fracking has long been known to cause minor earthquakes as part of the process to make the ground more permeable, but it is now known to also contribute to larger earthquakes. Oklahoma’s Supreme Court took steps in 2015 to recognize the complicity of oil companies when state residents suffered from increased earthquake activities and requisite damages. In a particularly earthquake-prone state such as California, this is a reasonable cause for additional concern. 

Given evidence pointing to the toxic and pervasive impacts of California oil infrastructure on people and the natural environment, how has the practice continued? Jarvis points to one likelihood as “a cognitive dissonance with people thinking, ‘Well, it’s a nice neighborhood, there are some nice parks,’ etc.” He believes people who might not otherwise be willing to live next to awful things such as toxic oil wells turn a blind eye in the name of property values and other hard-won amenities in a city that is globally renowned for its sky-high cost of living. There’s also the fact that the city of L.A. has grown up around the many sites of oil drilling, and it’s been well-camouflaged in many areas, especially Westside communities and beach towns. 

Signal Hill, a city on a hill that is surrounded by Long Beach, features modern townhouse enclaves and upscale apartments alongside oil wells and derricks. Signal Hill Park, just over 10 acres in size, sits atop the hill with panoramic views of Long Beach Harbor, the Long Beach Airport and the Pacific Ocean — and silhouettes of derricks. The park draws both tourists and neighbors who picnic, play and lounge near the toxic oil wells. The park also features several statues as homage to Signal Hill’s ties to the Southern California oil industry that first boomed in the early 20th century.

Enclaves of oil wells and individual derricks have been hidden behind high walls, made to look like office buildings, synagogues and one decorated with flowers (even as suspicious cancers cropped up in the shadow of that “Tower of Hope” once sited at Beverly Hills High School). In Long Beach, $10 million was spent to aestheticize four offshore drilling platforms made to look like tropical islands. 

The money allocated to alleviate eyesores of drilling sites, however, does nothing to alter the impact of toxic chemicals released into the air and water. These decorative efforts that are unevenly applied across the city starkly underscore the environmental racism components of L.A. oil. Neighborhoods of wealthier, white residents seem to experience more closed and concealed wells while working-class communities of color are more likely to have ongoing, visible oil drilling.

Inglewood Oil Field spans 1,000 acres of the historically Black Inglewood, Baldwin Park, and Ladera Heights neighborhoods, with roughly 900 active and idle oil wells sitting on the nation’s largest urban oil field. The nearby Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area buttresses Inglewood Oil Field, making oil derricks prominent backdrops to the park’s lakes, creeks and playgrounds, which are frequented by families, joggers, hikers and thousands of park visitors. Kenneth Hahn Soccer Fields, where local children play, practice and compete, lie in the shadow of towering oil drills, their heads bobbing in the background of soccer tournaments.

“In places where people have complained about it, they tend to camouflage, but that’s not true everywhere,” says Jarvis. “Long Beach harbor yes, Inglewood not so much.”

Alongside camouflaging efforts by oil companies, general lack of public awareness about drilling and refining makes it challenging to generate sustained public attention on this problem. However, there has been an uptick of interest in the last few years as communities push for California legislation that limits how close to homes oil companies can operate. In late 2021, a California law was passed that enacted some limitations on oil production in proximity to homes. The city of Los Angeles proposed its own outright ban on drilling in the city proper. While these policy-level moves are long-awaited gains in community fights against oil companies, they do little to address the underlying issue of capping and cleaning up orphaned wells, something experts say will be a major hurdle. Meeting the requirements of these laws entails closing and cleaning up around 5,200 wells across the state. 

A central concern of orphan wells is that they are potentially hazardous to the water table as they generally leak toxic chemicals used in the oil production process, such as radioactive iodine. The California Department of Conservation’s last count of existing idle wells across the state was 35,000, and Jarvis says the state’s own estimate to decommission those wells is around $500 million. Since oil is not yet considered a pollutant under the environmental EPA cleanup superfunds, the cost of handling orphaned wells is often laid at the feet of taxpayers. Jarvis points to this as an indicator of just “how much Big Oil dictates how and what happens.”

While state and local politicians in California grapple with the likely long rollout of enacting laws aimed at ending oil drilling in the state, hundreds of hospitals, schools, and daycare centers remain in the shadow of oil wells. Angelenos living in the most oil-impacted areas like Wilmington, Inglewood and South L.A. continue to experience the ongoing (and as yet unknown) ramifications of living amidst toxic oil.

The Marathon Petroleum Refinery sits on the border between the city of Carson and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington, both communities near Long Beach that experience toxic effects from various stages of oil drilling and refining in the area. The majority of Wilmington residents (97%) are people of color. The neighborhood is an asthma red zone due to air pollution, meaning children in the area are 50% more likely to miss school due to asthma-related issues than in other parts of Los Angeles County.

Tara Pixley is a photojournalist and a professor of visual journalism at LMU. In August 2022, she was named a Pulitzer Center Grantee with the Eyewitness Journalism Grant for her project on Southern California’s environmental justice issue of oil production. Follow her @tlpix.