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Regulators Accused of Lax Oversight at LA Oilfield AP New York Times

Baldwin Hills Aerial by The City Project.

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — This sprawling metropolis is built atop one of the richest oil basins in the world. Wells dot the city landscape, some hidden behind hollow building facades much like a Hollywood movie set, or, in the case of Beverly Hills High School, encased in a tower painted with flowers.

For decades it had been assumed that one oil field, the historic Inglewood, just minutes from the downtown skyline, would eventually play out, that the nodding pumpjacks would give way to an elaborately planned, two square-mile park.

But in 2004 Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Co., which had acquired the drilling rights from Chevron, used new technology to discover that only 35 percent of the reserves had been pumped out and began to drill the first of what would eventually become 600 new wells over the next 20 years. This renewed push for oil was helped along by county and state regulators who determined that the additional wells didn’t require any environmental review.

One state engineer charged with granting new permits apparently saw himself as more of a cheerleader for Plains than an impartial regulator, according to e-mails acquired by the Associated Press and an investigation by the state auditor. Not only did he own stock in the company whose wells he was approving, he solicited donations from the oil companies he regulated for his wife’s nonprofit.

”Just keep up the good work,” state regulator Floyd Leeson wrote to a high-ranking Plains’ official in March, 2005, ”and I will TRY to keep (my boss) from hitting you guys with any more retarded fines … Remember, I’m on YOUR side … go PXP!”

The lack of oversight is now at the center of a lawsuit filed by several environmental and community groups who want stronger environmental standards applied to the Inglewood field. This includes a comprehensive health study, decreasing the number of wells the company can drill per year and requiring the company to drill farther away from residential areas. . . .

Crude was discovered here in 1924, a time when the area was just empty fields and environmental regulations were decades from being enacted. Production peaked a year later when 176 new wells were drilled, but by the 1990s an average of less than four new wells were drilled per year.

As the decades passed, residents began to settle near the Inglewood field. Baldwin Hills, one such community, was nicknamed the ”black Beverly Hills” where the likes of Ray Charles and Tina Turner once lived. Now, ranch style homes and palatial mansions oversee swaths of dirt and scrub where oil pumps bob behind chain link fences.

After estimating an end date for drilling sometime this decade, a park plan was drawn up and voters approved funding to create the largest new urban park in the country.

”Everybody assumed the oil was a diminishing resource, that the owner at the time was in good conscience saying ‘We’re almost done here’ and here’s the unfortunate part — nobody gets it in writing,” said David McNeill, the head of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, created years after then producer Chevron sold the oilfield.

It wasn’t until 2006, when noxious fumes leaked out and forced home evacuations that many residents discovered the drilling wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Many were unaware that Plains, using 3-D imaging to discover where the crude remained, had ramped up drilling in 2004.

In addition to drilling as deep as 10,000 feet, the company also applied a technique where water is injected into ground under high pressure to push the oil to an area where it can be pumped out. The first of the new wells averaged 800 barrels of crude daily. . . .

Before the county issued a temporary moratorium on new drilling in June 2006, Leeson approved 24 new wells in three days, a process that at the time could take take weeks. That year Plains tried to get more wells permitted than any other year in the oil field’s history, according to the lawsuit.

In an interview with the Associated Press, [one of Plains’ vice presidents, Steve] Rusch said the exchanges with Leeson were in the past and the company ”wants to move forward,” and has gone to great lengths to be transparent with the community. . . .

In 2007 the county held hearings and eventually created a special set of regulations governing drilling in Inglewood. Drilling was capped at 600 wells.

Rusch said that the company voluntarily funded an environmental review and agreed to adopt more regulations because they felt it was the best way to address community concerns. The new standards include more restrictions on noise, a cap on the number of wells Plains can drill before triggering additional reviews and a third party environmental coordinator to ensure that the company is in compliance.

Rusch said that, as a result, Inglewood is the heaviest regulated onshore oilfield in the state if not the country. Last year, the company paid $10.2 million in taxes to the county.

”We’re not willing to leave so this can be turned into a park,” said Rusch. ”There’s a lot of speculation about the inadequacies of the (new environmental regulations). Let’s test them.”

The community and environmental groups were in no such mood. By the end of 2008, they had filed four separate lawsuits. A judge consolidated the suits into one, which is expected to go to trial in April.

The suit, in addition to its lack of oversight allegations, also contains claims of environmental racism. It says that the Inglewood field has not been cleaned up or disguised as oil fields have been in wealthy white sections of of Los Angeles. . . .

Read the rest of this article by AP Reporter Noaki Schwartz in the New York Times . . .

View images and a map of the Baldwin Hills community and oil field on Google News . . .

Learn more about the community lawsuits against the County and the oil company at www.greaterbaldwinhillsalliance.org.

The AP article about the Baldwin Hills community, park and oil field has been picked up in over 300 stories . . .