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Baldwin Hills: How Many New Oil Wells Will Be Allowed?

The County of Los Angeles is allowing the Texas oil company Plains Exploration & Production Company (“PXP”) to drill up to 600 oil wells in the Baldwin Hills in the next 20 years, an average of 30 wells per year.  The oil company drilled an average of only 10 wells per year over the past 20 to 25 years, as shown below.  Thirty wells per year is about triple the drilling rate for the past 20 to 25 years before 2005, when PXP dramatically ramped up its drilling operations and surrounding communities experienced more problems.

The oil field zoning regulations that the county approved in 2008 (called a “community standards district” or “CSD”) allow 54 wells to be drilled per year, with a maximum of 600 wells over the next 20 years.  The county would have no discretion over the 600 new wells.  A conditional use permit would be triggered only if PXP seeks to drill more than 600 new wells over the next 20 years.  PXP has aggressive plans which are new and which were brought about by the high price of oil and the advent of new technology.

PXP’s lawyer argues, “People who live in surrounding communities knew the oil field was there when they decided to move in.”

Los Angeles has grown and the setting around the oil field has changed significantly since the oil field began production in 1924.  The oil field is now located in the one of the nation’s largest and most populous metropolitan areas, in the heart of African American Los Angeles.  The area is the home of Baldwin Hills Park, the largest urban park designed in the United States in over a century and the greatest public works project in the history of a community that has long suffered from environmental degradation and discrimination.  See bit.ly/cEafj1.

PXP does not have a vested right to drill wells.  Even if it did, public officials could still regulate expansion or intensification of oil field operations to protect public health, safety, morals and the general welfare.

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 public officials may regulate those structures by zoning regulation.  The public’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.  Public officials remain free to condition or even refuse to grant new drilling permits for unwarranted intensification or expansion of even a vested right.  Public officials 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.  Judge James Chalfant so held in the decision upholding the right of the people to regulate the oil field in the case of PXP v. City of Culver City in March 2010.  The decision is available at www.cityprojectca.org/blog/archives/3863.

The chart of oil wells below shows that, until PXP ramped up drilling in 2005, the Baldwin Hills oil field was averaging about 10 wells drilled per year.  A second chart of abandoned wells also (in the attached Policy Brief) shows that, over the same timeframe, the Baldwin Hills Oil Field was averaging about 18 existing wells plugged per year.  [Data analysis and source: Ken Kutcher, Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP; DOGGR annual reports.]

There was no environmental impact report until 2008, letting people know the impact of the oil field on their lives.  There is still no adequate report.  The county is only now working on a health study.

People in the community have a right to expect that drilling would not get worse than it has been since they moved in.  PXP cannot simply escalate the drilling rate that has been occurring over the past 20 to 25 years. Those are the drilling rates that the residents should expect, not the tripling of oil drilling that PXP now wants to perform.

This is why an alliance of community advocates seek access to justice in the courts to keep the Baldwin Hills clean and green for generations to come, including Concerned Citizens of Southcentral Los Angeles represented by The City Project, the City of Culver City, Community Health Councils, National Resources Defense Council, and Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community.  Learn more at www.greaterbaldwinhillsalliance.org and www.baldwinhillsoil.org.

Download the four page Baldwin Hills Policy Brief with both charts here.

baldwin hills wells chart