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Climate and Environment

This Is Not A Drill! State Regulators Want To Shut Down Oil Wells In South LA

A black oil pumpjack in the center of the image with green tree canopy in the foreground and a neighbhorhood in the background.
An oil pumpjack near homes in the Inglewood Oil Field, Los Angeles, California.
(Gary Kavanagh
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State regulators entered a South L.A. oil drilling site with a warrant and bolt cutters after being unable to schedule an inspection. The site is operated by oil company AllenCo and has been the subject of neighborhood worries for years. Nearby residents say fumes have caused nosebleeds, asthma and other health problems.

The facility is nestled between two schools and apartment buildings along the dense Figueroa Corridor in the University Park neighborhood. Though the site has been idle since 2013, the wells have yet to be properly shut down and plugged, according to authorities. And that has residents and regulators alike worried about leaks from the wells that could still impact the community.

In 2019, state regulators discovered “numerous gas leaks” that “pose a safety hazard,” according to state records. They ordered AllenCo to permanently plug the site’s 21 idle wells, but the company said it had not produced oil there for years and appealed the order. The L.A. City Attorney’s office then charged them with a criminal misdemeanor.

The warrant is a step towards needed accountability, said Hugo García, environmental justice campaign coordinator with social justice non-profit Esperanza Community Housing Corporation.

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“It demonstrates that the state oil and gas regulator is willing to take actions that would assist in protecting the health of the community in University Park in South Central,” Garcia said.

The Timing Of The Warrant

Monday’s warrant came after AllenCo canceled a site inspection earlier this year, according to the California Department of Conservation Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the agency that oversees oil and gas operations across the state.

The warrant didn’t reveal any gas leaks, possibly due to rainy conditions, CalGEM wrote in an emailed statement to our newsroom. Monday’s inspection was primarily for contractors to bid on the work to depressurize the wells. State regulators plan to contract with a winning bidder to carry out that work.

The site is owned by the City of L.A. and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and leased and operated by AllenCo. An attorney for AllenCo told us that the city and Archdiocese are responsible for plugging the wells since CalGEM suspended the operating lease last year and the city and Archdiocese owns the property.

“AllenCo has not produced one drop of oil in 9 years,” said AllenCo attorney Carmen Trutanich, who also served as L.A. city attorney from 2009 to 2013. Trutanich argued that the city and CalGEM have held AllenCo “hostage” because the state canceled the company’s lease last year and the city doesn't want to pay for the cleanup themselves.

“AllenCo has had to maintain that property for nine years because the owners of the property won’t come on to it,” Trutanich said. “Why won’t they come on to it? They’re looking at a cleanup cost of shutting down those wells of about 20 to 25 million dollars.”

The Challenge Of Accountability

Part of the challenge of holding oil operators accountable is the patchwork of regulations spread across various agencies and jurisdictions.

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The state’s zoning code doesn’t hold surface owners, in this case the Archdiocese and city of L.A., responsible for a bankrupt or abandoned oil facility, according to CalGEM. Instead, the state argues that mineral rights holders, which are numerous and date back to operators in the mid-1950s, are responsible.

A meeting on the issue is scheduled for later this month and ultimately the Los Angeles Superior Court will determine who’s responsible for shutting down the site, according to CalGEM.

This is part of the broader fight to end oil drilling in Los Angeles. In January, the city of L.A. unanimously approved phasing out all oil and gas drilling in the city and also voted to create a task force to assist oil and gas workers that would be impacted by the change. Garcia said he looks forward to the day when communities don’t have to fight drilling in their backyards.

“We're looking forward to that moving forward as soon as possible so that we don't have to worry about operators like AllenCo Energy continuing to violate mandated procedures that they're supposed to undergo,” Garcia said.

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