• 03.03.17

There’s An Unlikely Source Of Oil In California: Poor Los Angeles Neighborhoods

In Los Angeles, oil wells are scattered throughout the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, where they cause serious health problems. This campaign wants to put an end to it.

There’s An Unlikely Source Of Oil In California: Poor Los Angeles Neighborhoods

The neighborhood of Wilmington, California lies at the southwest edge of Los Angeles, right up against the beach. In some respects, it looks like a typical southern California neighborhood: Sparse palm trees line streets of one-story homes. But below the surface, there’s an oil field that extends 13 miles from Torrance in the north to Seal Beach in the south. Though the majority of the 6,150 wells that have, since 1932, extracted over 3 billion barrels of oil, are located land offshore, a number of wells are dotted through the streets of Wilmington, some right next door to schools and homes.


More than 580,000 Angelenos live less than a quarter mile from an oil well; 91% of that number are people of color. Wilmington is an overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood, and something that Martha Arguello, the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A., calls a “sacrifice zone”: A neighborhood disproportionally affected by and unprotected from the adverse effects of oil drilling. “These are highly industrial, dangerous practices that expose residents to unconscionable health and safety burdens,” says Gladys Limon, an attorney at Communities for a Better Environment. School children in Wilmington frequently complain of headaches, bloody noses, and irritation to the eyes.

Arguello and Limon are speaking in #BadNeighbors, a new series of short videos released by the social media awareness campaign Stop Fooling California. “We have a laser focus on the oil industry and how it manipulates people and politics in the state,” Sarah Golden, the campaign manager from Cater Communications, the bipartisan firm that oversees Stop Fooling California. In 2015, the oil industry spent $22 million lobbying California lawmakers to direct legislative outcomes: That same year, the oil industry successfully pressured lawmakers into removing a petroleum-use restriction from a bill that contained two other measures designed to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

Cater Communications launched Stop Fooling California in 2013 to make evident the reach of the oil industry into California politics; previous campaigns have included creating name tags that expose leaders’ conflicts of interest, and how their environmentalist claims cave to industry lobby. (One particularly potent example: Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, was also named chair of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force, in which she was able to create “marine protected areas” that did not actually protect the oceans from fracking and oil drilling.)

The #BadNeighbors initiative, Golden says, is drawing attention to a specific fallout of the oil industry’s grip on the state: The way in which it profits by endangering some of California’s most vulnerable communities. The five videos–released over a period of five weeks in February and March–focus on the Los Angeles area, touching on how drilling disproportionately affects people of color, and particularly harms children: One video touches on a 2015 lawsuit that local youth groups filed against the City of Los Angeles for allowing oil companies to exploit their neighborhoods.

“It’s no secret that disadvantaged communities are shouldering a disproportionate amount of the harm from climate-change pollution,” Golden says. On a macro scale, this holds true: Think about how disproportionately developing countries are harmed by the emissions produced by the developed world, of which the U.S. is part. But on a micro level, this disparity often plays out in ways that are invisible. In the Los Angeles neighborhoods profiled in #BadNeighbors, though, the oil wells can’t be missed. “Yet there’s a lot of people who live 10 miles away from these communities who aren’t aware that that these practices go on,” Golden says. She hopes the videos will get Angelenos to understand that drilling happens right in the midst of the city, and causes significant harm to some of their fellow residents.

But Golden also hopes that the videos will get public officials and policymakers to pay attention. “We want to see the city make more stringent rules around how and when people can be drilling in an urban environment,” she says. Creating a public health buffer zone, Golden adds, is a great start. Addressing the community health crisis spurred by urban drilling, “will be a really central thing for L.A. as it works to recreate itself as a sustainable and forward-looking city,” Golden says.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.