An oil well stands tall among several homes in Wilmington. Credit: UCLA Law's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment/Flickr.

L.A. Could Mandate Buffer Zones Around Oil, Gas Wells

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It turns out that Los Angeles could require “setbacks,” or buffer zones, between oil and gas wells and homes and other structures. But will they? Maybe not.

The news comes via Sammy Roth of the L.A. Times, who tuned into a recent meeting of the L.A. City Council’s Energy, Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee. In July of 2019, the city’s petroleum administrator recommended a 600-foot buffer for current wells and a 1,500-foot buffer around future drilling. The City Council asked the city attorney’s office if they had the legal authority to implement these changes, and on Tuesday, they said yes.

However, it’s unclear if the city will move forward with the recommendation. The primary reason is, well, what it always comes down to — money. If Los Angeles mandated buffer zones, litigation would likely follow. Jennifer Tobkin, a deputy city attorney, said her office would defend a “carefully crafted setback ordinance,” but Councilmember Paul Krekorian worried that lawsuits from oil companies could take money away from other services.

“As eager as we are to move forward on this, I think it’s really important that we be mindful,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is subsidize oil companies with public money.”

Advocates of buffer zones want them for obvious reasons. It’s not great to breathe in polluted air. Many activists say those who spend significant time near oil and gas wells suffer poor health outcomes. This May 2019 report from PSE Health Energy, commissioned by the City of Los Angeles, also recommended the city implement setback requirements, as well as caps on oil and gas development and increased emission control strategies.

“The science is relatively clear that the development of oil and gas immediately adjacent to places where people live, work and play poses hazards and risks to public health and that some minimum distance from sensitive receptors should be considered,” the study reads. “Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico and other major oil and gas producing states have regulations that set a minimum surface setback requirement from sensitive receptors where oil and gas can be produced and in most cases these setback requirements are larger than those that exist in the City of Los Angeles and the State of California more generally.”

In fact, in California, state lawmakers elected not to pass a bill that would have required a minimum buffer zone in August.

Opponents of setback requirements are concerned about job loss, especially during a pandemic that has caused record unemployment. However, it’s also not great to breathe in polluted air during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system, and studies have linked pollution to higher COVID-19 mortality rates.

Moreover, we already know that COVID-19 has affected low-income communities and communities of color, especially Black and brown communities, disproportionately. A recent report from L.A. Controller Ron Galperin highlighted deep inequities across the city, which included health outcomes for those who live closer to freeways and facilities that produce pollution. Those communities also tend to be lower-income communities and communities of color. Like most things, environmental justice is intersectional.

The committee will discuss the issue again at its next meeting on Dec. 1.

Los Angeleno