On a busy street in South Los Angeles between an apartment complex and an AIDS healthcare clinic and across the street from senior housing, there’s something you might not expect in the country’s second largest city: an active oil and gas drilling operation—the Murphy drill site—with more than two dozen wells. The site isn’t alone. Throughout the city, there are thousands of oil and gas wells, some hidden behind tall walls, or, in one case, inside a fake synagogue. In some neighborhoods, rigs pumping oil are visible from parks and schoolyards. The city has the largest urban oil field in the country.
Today, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to ban new oil and gas wells, and took the first step toward phasing out existing operations, calling for a study that would look at whether those wells have recouped their costs so that they can legally be shut down without the government taking property from oil companies. An organization representing oil companies in the state has already said that a lawsuit is likely.
Last year, L.A. County also took a step toward phasing out existing oil and gas drilling. The state is also considering requiring a 3,200-foot setback from homes, schools, and other sensitive locations; though for existing wells, the change would just require more pollution control, not an end to drilling.
Neighbors have been organizing to fight the drilling for years. “I remember meeting Sonny, who lives next door to the drill site, and he told me that closed windows could not keep the petroleum fumes and diesel fumes out of his two-year-old daughter’s bedroom,” says Richard Parks, who has lived between two drilling sites—the Murphy drill site and Jefferson drill site—for 30 years. Parks now leads Redeemer Community Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for the health and safety of children in the areas. Seven years ago, he started talking to neighbors about the problems caused by the drill sites. “Other residents talked about the deafening din of thousands of feet of metal pipe being driven into the ground,” he says. Another group, Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling, or STAND-LA, has also led the advocacy against the urban drilling.
Los Angeles first discovered oil beneath the ground in the 1890s, and it drove the growth of what had been a small town. The oil wells aren’t new, but the health impacts have become more obvious. Oil wells emit pollutants including formaldehyde, benzene, particulate matter, and black carbon. A 2021 study from the University of Southern California that looked at drilling sites in South L.A. linked living near oil wells to reduced lung function (similar, in some cases, to daily exposure to secondhand smoke). Residents near active wells also reported wheezing, sore throats, dizziness, and eye and nose irritation. Another study found that women living with around 6 miles of an oil or gas well while pregnant were at greater risk of having low birthweight babies.
Community members suspect even more impacts. After neighbors spotted a fine mist being sprayed in the air at one drilling site, they learned that it was a chemical cocktail designed to mask the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas; it contains chemicals that are endocrine disruptors, meaning that they can affect reproductive hormones. “These are chemicals that disrupt reproductive health across generations,” says Parks. “This was a thing as we were going door to door, and we were talking with neighbors, we started just noticing that there’s this high prevalence of miscarriages.”
They’ve also watched as tanker trucks filled with acid, used for well maintenance, pull up near homes. “We see these workers in head-to-toe protective gear, standing behind red danger tape, dispensing this acid—the wells were literally just feet away from bedroom windows, and those residents had no notice of what was going on,” he says. “There were times when just the ambient fumes from these acid jobs were so intense that they would chemically burn the plants on the downwind corner of the drill site.”
In Parks’s neighborhood, some homes were demolished in the 1960s to make way for the current drilling sites. Other buildings were left in place, intended to be left vacant to act as a small buffer zone, but the oil company later asked the city if it could rent out the properties. “They said, we want to bring people in, but we’ve got a solution here; we’re going to put a deed restriction on these properties that basically says anybody who rents here forfeits their right to complain about odors, vibrations, oil splashes—and the city said, great, sounds good,” Parks says.
It’s not unusual for the drill sites to violate regulations. In one incident last year, the Murphy drill site emitted pollution into the neighborhood when it “degassed” 21,000-gallon tanks, something that’s prohibited within 1,000 feet of a school—there are three schools near that site. The site has repeatedly been cited for violating clean air rules.
Oil and gas wells are also a major source of climate pollution—not only the pollution that comes from burning fuel, but methane leaks that come from the drilling itself. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is also leaking from abandoned oil wells in the city. That’s a problem for L.A.’s climate goals; the city council voted last year to create a plan to become carbon neutral by 2030.