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As LA Phases Out Oil Drilling, Long Beach Is Doubling Down

As the rest of Los Angeles County moves toward phasing out oil drilling, Long Beach agencies say they are mandated by law to do the opposite — to maximize production.

A picture of construction vehicles at a drilling site in Long Beach.
Willow Springs Park is a restoration site and oil drilling site in Long Beach. (Photo: Nicole Levin)

Just one day after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its final, most urgent warning to keep oil in the ground at the risk of irreversible climate chaos, the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously on a drilling plan to expand production over the next five years. 

City councilmembers said they were blindsided by the report, which was prepared by the Energy Resources Department and the city manager. It completely ignores SB 1137, a bill passed at the state level last year to create 3,200-foot setbacks between oil drilling and homes

Usually this item would be voted on the consent calendar. But the item was only pulled for discussion after public pressure, at which point there was no time to make changes. City councilmembers only saw the report on March 13 — 10 days before the deadline to get the report to the State Lands Commission, which is responsible for managing and protecting natural resources. The Council then met eight days later on March 21.

“Is the deadline really in two days?” Mayor Rex Richardson asked during the hearing. 

After robust public comment, and letters from over 20 organizations and state assembly members, city councilmembers voiced their commitment to phasing out oil drilling. However, they still passed the plan. They had to. They were told it would be illegal not to submit something by March 23. 

To quote Councilmember Al Austin, “I don’t know if there’s much more to be said, it sounds like we’re handcuffed here.”

But this isn’t the first time Long Beach has resisted following through on its lip service to phasing out oil drilling. In March, the city council passed legislation to direct the city manager to find alternative revenue sources in order to wean the city off its financial dependence on oil drilling. Yet last year, the city manager sent a letter with concerns about SB 1137, and sent a consultant to testify at the hearing, saying the state law would devastate the city’s finances. Residents have told me that the city manager has continued to give reports about how the bill would drain the city coffers. 

To understand what’s happening in Long Beach, you need to understand the history of drilling in the city, mostly because nothing has changed over the last 80 years. 

Unlike LA County and LA City, Long Beach owns their wells. The State Lands Commission, who walked us through the history of the oil field in a private meeting, told us that in the early 1910s, the state granted offshore and onshore land to the city to hold in public trust. Once oil was discovered in the 1930s, the city began making a lot of money. 

Too much money, I was told by a member of the State Lands Commission, for it really to be public trust. The state enacted Chapter 138, which allowed for the development of the Long Beach Unit field in exchange for the state pocketing some of the revenue. (It is important to note that both the State and City of Long Beach are liable for the costs of cleaning up these wells, and they are woefully unprepared.) According to Long Beach’s plan, this oil field which contains the THUMS offshore islands, is projected to continue to produce just about 15,000 barrels a day (exhibit E, page 19). 

These contracts between the city and state date back to 1964, and have not been updated since 1991. According to Long Beach Deputy City Attorney Richard Anthony the state law directs the city to maximize profits and production. 

The Long Beach Energy Resources Department was not set up to regulate oil and gas — they were set up to profit from it. They explicitly say this in presentations and in their mission statement: 

A screenshot of the Long Beach Energy Resources Department mission statement from their website.

After public pressure, the State Lands Commission rejected the latest oil drilling plan and sent it back to the city council with important revisions to make. These revisions included addressing how SB 1137 would impact the drilling, how the drilling impacts the public health of the communities nearby, and more information on the number of idle wells. 

State Controller Malia Cohen spoke to the public health impacts not addressed in this plan, adding another revision to loop in the local department of public health: 

While the State Lands Commission has the authority to reject the plan and add revisions, it is unclear when or if the city needs to implement these suggestions. 

The amount of oil in Long Beach is considerable. According to Fractracker, there are 2,762 operating wells within city limits. Half of these wells are offshore, and the majority — 71% — are active. Research from the Center for Biological Diversity found that a whopping 60% of the county’s oil production happens in Long Beach. 

Of course, this is an environmental justice issue. Of the more than 140,000 people living within 3,200 feet of an operating oil and gas well, 72.4% identify as non-white. Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent research from David González and colleagues at UC Berkeley found that Black people in California are more likely to live near oil drilling. According to Liberty Hill’s 2015 report, Drilling Down, “It has been well documented that a variety of environmental hazards and public health threats throughout the greater Los Angeles area are concentrated in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment, linguistic isolation, and a higher residential proportion of people of color.” 

Currently, activists are calling on the Long Beach City Council to phase out rather than expand oil drilling operations in their five-year plan, and to immediately ban new oil drilling within the 3,200-foot setback zone. You can also sign the petition here.

Nicole Levin is a campaigner with the Sierra Club and independent author of Diary of a Sad Girl. She is a former reporter for Knock LA.