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Local Advocacy Group Appeals Decision to Exempt Oil Company from Accountability

Neighbors for a Safer Environment argues that the decision "sets a precedent that will endanger all communities living around oil drill sites throughout the City."

oil rigs at the inglewood oil field at night
Inglewood Oil Facility in Culver City (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On Wednesday, August 18, a public hearing will be held to appeal a decision to categorically exempt Pacific Coast Energy’s drill site on West Pico Avenue in Rancho Park from legally mandated review or corrective conditions, despite a pile of evidence of illegal activity at the site. The appeal was filed by Neighbors for a Safer Environment (NASE), a local environmental advocacy group.

In the June 2, 2021 decision, the zoning administrator (ZA) acknowledged that the West Pico drill site, now owned by Pacific Coast Energy, is in violation of conditions for approval, but still decided to grant the site a categorical exemption. Pacific Coast Energy even admitted, in a June 2020 email to the ZA, that they had conducted 24 major oil projects on new wells, all without application to the ZA and without the environmental clearance required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Despite this failure to comply with city and state regulations, all of these wells have been granted LAFD operating permits and annual renewals. 

Regarding the ZA’s decision, NASE states: “The continuing lack of oversight, investigation, and any consequences for years of illegal activity … is a green light for all oil companies to ignore City law and CEQA at all drill sites in the City. That endangers not just the public living around the West Pico Drill Site, but also sets a precedent that will endanger all communities living around oil drill sites throughout the City.”

NASE’s appeal also accuses the City of Los Angeles of violating a 2001 legal settlement between the organization, the City, and BreitBurn Energy Company, the previous owners of the West Pico site. The settlement called for the ZA to review the conditions two years after the completion of the site’s planned expansion, and carry out additional inspections every five years. Twenty years later, none of these reviews have occurred.

This is hardly the first time the City has given undue categorical exemptions to oil companies. In 2015, the City was sued by three environmental groups for “rubber stamping” oil drill sites near homes and schools — particularly in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods — without considering environmental, health, and safety impacts. The lawsuit states that the groups only found one instance where LA required an environmental impact report for an oil drilling project, and it was at a site near a predominantly white neighborhood. 

“The West Pico drill site case has citywide implications not only because it’s a test case of whether the city’s existing laws mean anything at all,” says Michael Salman, a UCLA professor emeritus who has been researching the oil industry in LA since 2014 and has been actively involved in several oil drilling cases, including the West Pico drill site appeal.

Two activists hold signs saying "Aliso Canyon is a Health Crisis" and "Our Future is On Fire"
Activists protest at the four year anniversary of the blowout. (PHOTO: Hannah Benet.)

Salman points out that, in over a hundred years of oil production, the City of Los Angeles has never done general compliance inspection of a drill site. This lack of regulation could, in turn, make it more difficult for the City to end drilling at existing sites.

Phasing out oil production usually involves a process called amortization, which is “when a local government can require a company to cease economic activity that no longer complies with zoning codes — but only after allowing the company to recoup its investment.” As of June 8, Culver City became the first city in the United States to approve an ordinance with a timeline toward the amortization of oil production.

“If you’re going to do an amortization study, the very first thing you need to do is a comprehensive compliance inspection,” Salman says. Without inspections, there will be no proof that the drill sites aren’t complying with zoning codes in the first place. Even if the amortization process begins, there can be more difficulties further down the line.

“If [the drill site] is a legal investment, you have to allow them the time to recover whatever it is that a court ultimately would say is the right amount of money,” says Salman. “But what if it’s an illegal investment? What if those oil wells weren’t drilled legally … and without getting the required approvals? … There’s an argument that no amortization is due to them at all.”

In September 2018, City Council requested an ordinance be introduced to mandate annual general compliance inspections of oil sites; however, this has yet to happen, likely as a result of feet-dragging by the city attorney’s office. 

At an Energy, Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee meeting in 2018, Councilmember Paul Koretz, whose district includes the West Pico site, spoke on the urgency of establishing these inspections. Koretz stated: “We already had Aliso Canyon, which has been called the worst man-made greenhouse gas disaster in US history. If we’d been inspecting it, we might have been able to avoid it. If the city had been regularly inspecting the Rancho Park site in my district, we might have avoided the odorant leak which made people sick — made thousands of people fear for their lives.”

Salman argues that unless better oversight is established, oil companies will continue to drill wells without approval — and there will be no way to hold them accountable.

“If you don’t do those reviews, and you don’t do those inspections, then you can’t actually compile the documentary record that you might ever need for getting the site shut down,” says Salman. “City law is really clear that a conditional use approval can only be revoked if there is a documentary record of government agencies issuing corrective orders that are not obeyed or met … If you don’t do inspection, then there’s no corrective orders. If you don’t do reviews, you don’t have that right.”

The public hearing will be held on Wednesday, August 18, at 4:30 PM via Zoom and phone. You can find more information on how to attend and provide public comment here.