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Court Upholds the Right of the People to Regulate Urban Oil Field — Baldwin Hills

Judge James Chalfant of the Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled that Culver City may regulate expansion or intensification of new oil wells in the Baldwin Hills oil field on March 26, 2010.  The Court rejected the effort by Texas oil company Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) to throw out the City’s moratorium on new oil drilling while the City studies how to protect human health and the environment from the impacts of the oil field operations.

Culver City took action to protect the public after noxious oil field gas and odors invaded residential neigborhoods in two separate incidents in January and February of 2006, causing some residents to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night.  The Southern California Air Quality Management District issued a notice of violation to PXP because “[d]ischarge from oil well drilling operation caused nuisance to a considerable number of people.”  PXP shrugged its shoulders and claimed about the February incident that “there was no gas release and really nothing we could do to prevent it — it was routine, daytime operations.”

According to the Court, “The issues in this case concern PXP’s right, if any, to drill new oil wells on land within the City, and the City’s right to adopt a zoning ordinance impacting that right.”

The Court held that the City had the right to issue a moratorium while it determined what regulations to apply to applications for new wells.  PXP does not have a vested right to drill new wells.  Even if it did, the City could still regulate expansion or intensification of the oil field operations through new oil wells to protect public health, safety, morals and the general welfare.  The Court ruled:

“Drilling a new well results in new structures on the land: the drilling pad, the derrick, the borehole and its casings, the accessory structures for processing drilling mud, the pumping equipment, and more. Those new structures require new permits before they may be constructed, and the City may regulate those structures by zoning regulation. . . .  The City’s right to regulate an existing use of land for oil production may reasonably include regulation of the number, location, and manner of drilling new wells.”  “The City remains free to condition or even refuse to grant new drilling permits for unwarranted intensification or expansion of even a vested right.”  “A city could determine that an oil producing business has realized or will realize a sufficient return on its investment and a prohibition on oil production thereafter is justified.”

A part of the 1,000 acre Baldwin Hills oil field is located within Culver City.  The oil field has been in operation for over 85 years since 1924.  There are currently 1,463 wells (active, idle and abandoned) in the oil field as of 2006.  Oil operations on the oil field include drilling, redrilling, reworking and servicing of existing and new wells; production of oil and gas from the wells; water injection into wells; processing of fluids; gas processing; short-term storage of produced substances; transportation of the produced substances through pipelines; and related activities.

The County of Los Angeles recently approved up to 600 new oil wells over the next 20 years.  The  County’s environmental impact report (EIR) is being challenged by Culver City and community activists including The City Project and Concerned Citizens of Southcentral Los Angeles in a separate case that is scheduled for trial before Judge Chalfant on April 5, 2010.

The EIR recognizes the significance of the Baldwin Hills in African American Los Angeles and across the nation:

“The Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles has long been a geographical focus for African Americans.  The African American movement towards the Baldwin Hills area is rooted in a number of factors, including racial segregation that existed throughout the Los Angeles area in the 1950s . . . .  As segregation began to fall in the 1960s, middle and upper class African Americans disproportionately moved westward from South Central Los Angeles.  White flight from advancing blacks opened up opportunities to rent or buy housing.  Hundreds of houses and apartment complexes were built in Baldwin Hills in the 1950s providing larger more comfortable houses that were desirable to the more affluent African Americans that moved to the area. . . .  By the late-1950s and early-1960s, Baldwin Hills became the heart of affluent African American culture in Los Angeles.”

The Baldwin Hills are the home of the Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the United States in over a century.

Gary Hanken argued the case for Culver City.  Counsel for Culver City included David Cranston, Sedina Banks, Jenna Guggenheim of Greenberg Glusker;  Carol Schwab, City Attorney, and Heather Baker, Assistant City Attorney.

Download the Court’s decision upholding the right of the people  to regulate urban oil fields here.

Visit www.greaterbaldwinhillsalliance.org and www.baldwinhillsoil.org to learn more about the Baldwin Hills community, park and oil field.