Everyday, the human race utilizes more than a million terajoules of energy. With the global population constantly increasing and industrialisation on the rise in nations that have just begun their development process, our species hunger for energy is reaching unprecedented levels. Over half of our energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels extracted from deep within the Earth’s crust. Since oil drilling began in the 1850s, its estimated that we have accumulated over 135 billion tonnes of crude oil. Oil that we use to drive our cars, fuel our power stations and heat our homes, and is increasing everyday. It’s been projected numerous times that we are on a path towards disaster that can only be stopped by shifting ourselves away from our fossil fuel obsession. Fossil fuels as a commodity have been out of control for too long. The effects are too drastic for there not to be sufficient action taken against their regime in the energy industry. However, the fundamental issue here is formulating policies that effectively manage them. The obsession that we have with the products that fossil fuels produce, easily accessible energy being the main attraction, is what drives the incentive for industries to neglect the long term ramifications. Today, regulating such resources has become a prominent issue. In order for fossil fuels to be managed effectively they need to be under the control of organizations that are not consumed by the materialistic needs of society.
This is reflective in the case of urban oil drilling in the city of Los Angeles. Oil drilling has become a large socio-economic issue within Los Angeles every since the conception of the city. The fossil fuel industry was an integral part of Los Angeles’ early development. In the 1890s, the small town of Los Angeles, which at the time had a population of around 50,000, discovered what is now some of the most productive oil fields ever to be utilized, known as the Los Angeles Oil Basin. Just under half a century later, in the 1930s, California alone was responsible for extracting and producing approximately one quarter of the world’s total oil output, and its population had grown to 1.2 million. The basin became a free for all for the budding oil industry. This was a result of the abundance of easily accessible oil, minimal regulation, and no understanding of the health or environmental impacts. The Los Angeles Basin still remains the largest urban oil field in the country. There are thousands of active oil wells in the greater L.A. area, which are located amongst a diverse demographic of more than 10 million people.
As of today, Los Angeles is home to approximately 5,000 active oil and gas wells. These wells are spread across 10 oil fields and 70 different sites embedded throughout neighborhoods, parks, and commercial districts in the city. On average about one in every three Los Angeles residents live within a one mile radius of an oil drilling site. This present one of the main issues of urban oil drilling. The residents of Los Angeles living in close proximity to the oil and gas sites across the city not only experience disruptive noise from equipment, truck traffic, and rigs, but also become susceptible to extremely detrimental hazards to public health through dangerous air pollution and the use of toxic chemicals in oil extraction. However, despite the risks presented by urban oil production, the industry is still predicted to be on the rise in the coming years. Over the last 15 years the number of active wells in the L.A. area has increased by almost 20%.
Furthermore, there is still an estimated 5 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Los Angeles Oil Basin. The continuing rise in urban oil production in L.A. is a concerning trend because of not only the environmental and healthy risks it is responsible for, but also the regulatory loopholes that let these hazards exist in the first place. There are numerous reports from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning regarding city regulations that fail to conform to the changing nature of the urban oil industry. Companies that are in control of the oil sites are finding ways to get around the regulations that are supposed to limit them. With urban oil production on the rise it is essential that regulatory bodies and the general public understand how exactly oil production is transpiring in their city, and to determine whether L.A. residential districts are equally and effectively protected from the subsequent risks.
The decrease in the amount of oil in designated producing zones has forced companies to to look for the resource in seemingly less practical locations, such as urban areas. These companies go through multiple stages of procedures and agreements with city residents and local officials concerning the details of their operations. Specifically, pertaining to rules that govern aesthetics, noise, hours of operation and other issues that affect the living conditions of those in proximity to the sites. Oil is generally obtained through what is known as “conventional” production methods. However, conventional oil sources are beginning to dwindle due to the mass demand and increasing extraction rates. Subsequently, oil companies have turned to “unconventional” oil production, which generally involves the use of a process known as well stimulation. This process is responsible for a large majority of the health and welfare issues that span across the city of Los Angeles. The process itself essentially enables oil companies to expand the productivity life span of wells that would otherwise be depleted. These activities directly related to oil production are the main factors involved in the public health issues throughout the city, especially in relation to the lack of sufficient safeguards.
A safeguard that is consistently overlooked in relation to urban oil drilling is the adequate separation of oil production sites and what are classified as sensitive populations, such as schools, homes and public institutions. Throughout the city there are approximately 17 sites that operate hazardously close to these sensitive populations. An influential law appointed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District(AQMD) requires all companies in charge of oil production in L.A. to report any activity such as drilling new wells, using acid to clean out wells or using chemicals to increase oil production. The law also requires companies to determine whether their oil production activities within 1,500 feet of any kind of public institution. Because of this particular aspect of the law, it was discovered that approximately 86 wells were drilled, acidized, fracted, or underwent a related measure within 1,500 feet of a vulnerable population center and of the 17 sites with wells within 1,500 feet of a sensitive population, the average separation was only 380 feet.
Regardless of the number of regulations that are put in place to mitigate the damage done by oil sites a community’s health and welfare will be at risk whenever their is any kind of oil operation near any public domain. The hazardous effects of oil include smells, noises, vibrations, as well as a multitude of health determinants, such as carcinogenic emissions.The University Park neighborhood living across the street from the AllenCo operations experienced this first hand. Data from 2013 suggests AllenCo only used conventional oil production techniques.Yet, for years residents were reporting unusual health symptoms like headaches and nosebleeds. It took three years, numerous protests, over 250 complaints to the AQMD, before regulatory agencies stepped in to inspect the site and take air samples, where they found faulty equipment leaking emissions up to 1,200 times the legal limit.
In L.A. oil drilling occurs across a diverse network of neighborhoods ranging from wealthy to poor. However, not all communities are equally protected from the risks associated with oil production. The amount of protective regulations that are implemented and enforced vary on a site by site basis. This can be seen in the contrast between communities such as South Los Angeles/Wilmington and West Los Angeles/Wilshire. To put the variation between the two communities into perspective the West LA and Wilshire sites have a median household income of $86,000 compared to the South Los Angeles and Wilmington/Harbor City site areas’ median income of $33,000.
In the West L.A. and Wilshire areas, oil sites have a variety of special features and operational regulations that protect the surrounding communities. To a much larger degree than the communities of the South L.A. and Wilmington sites. These regulations are generally enforced by Zoning Administors, who essentially are in control of land use laws and bylaws of residential and commercial areas around the city. Due to the stricter regulations, West L.A. and Wilshire sites are generally a safe distance away from residential areas, on average about 570 feet, and if they are within a closer proximity there are measures taken to ensure that they are out of the public’s immediate attention.
Zoning Administrators do not allow any form of operations on the wells to occur in Wilshire and West L.A. unless they meet the strict set of parameters that are enacted. The Cheviot Hills Site, Packard Site, and Doheny Site are all example of oil production sites throughout West L.A. and Wilshire. Each of these sites are representative of the features that are implemented in wealthier areas to accommodate the residents. The Cheviot Hills Site is located in the Hillcrest Country Club. The club houses two drilling location. The drills are an adequate distance away from the surrounding residential areas. When the Zoning administrator initially implemented the regulations for this area they noted that due to the sites being “near the quality residential neighborhood known as Cheviot Hills… so all features of oil drilling and production must be strictly controlled to eliminate any possible odor, noise, hazards, unsightliness, or extensive truck traffic.”(). The Packard Site and Doheny site are located in the Wilshire community. They are located in the middle of commercial and residential districts of the city. The oil rigs for each site are covered in design features that act as enclosures that house the sites. The sites also have strict operating hours(7am-7pm) and have switched engines that have reduced noise levels. These are all design features that are meant to keep the public unaware of the damage that these sites are still capable of, despite their seemingly non-harmful appearances.
In contrast to the well maintained sites in West L.A. and Wilshire, the production sites in South L.A. and Wilmington have significantly less protective features and are located dangerously close to homes, schools, health care facilities, parks, etc. In South L.A. and Wilmington there is an average separation between production sites and public areas of 140 feet. Three sites that exemplifies this lack of regulation are the Jefferson Site, Murphy site and the Warren E&P Sites. The Jefferson Site, which is located in South L.A. is within a 60 foot radius of a surringding housing complex. During the initial construction of the site, it was regulated that to protect the surrounding areas two adjacent lots must be maintained to act as buffer between production operations and residents. Yet, in time this regulation was soon over looked and the lots were used to expand the oil production site. The Murphy Site is another instance of unfortunate placement. It is located less than 100 feet from a clinic for HIV patients as well as a couple hundred feet from of an apartment complex and senior citizen homes.
The was also supposed to be equipped with urban camouflage and sound proofing technology, however despite requests from locales these improvements have never been enacted. The Warren E&P Site is one of the largest oil production sites in the city, with approximately 90 active wells. The facilitators behind the well wanted to implement 540 new wells. However, despite there being a massive increase, which correlates to numerous potential risks the city required minimal review of the process to take place. Meaning that it was very likely that there would be many harmful effects that would be overlooked. The sites in West Los Angeles and Wilmington have been neglected in enforcing regulations and improvements, in contrast to their wealthier counterparts where these issues seem to be of the utmost importance.
A significant discrepancy in how each of these areas of Los Angeles are treated is also the priority that are put on complaints and violations in areas respectively. Comparing South L.A./Wilmington to West L.A./Wilshire displays a huge disparity. South L.A. sites alone had over 40 more violations recorded and 300 more complaints in comparison to their West L.A. counterparts. The regulations that are put in place regarding urban oil production are designed to protect the public health. These violations and negations put certain neighborhoods at a higher risk than others, and this inequality is based on differences in income above all else. The types of things that are included in these violations are abuse of chemical compounds in well stimulation, neglection in reporting certain operations, and leaks of harmful emissions and volatile compounds. Ignoring these violations can result in extreme harm to residents near those facilities and unfortunately it is happening at increasing rates across lower income areas.
Whenever oil is produced near homes, schools, daycares, and other sensitive population centers, residents are put at risk.With 17 sites across the City of Los Angeles operating hazardously close (within 1,500 feet) to these kinds of sensitive population centers, oil operations present a significant citywide risk to public health that decision-makers have failed to effectively address. Although oil production occurs citywide, the risk is much higher in lower-income areas. Oil drilling occurs closer to homes, has fewer protective features and is subject to more regulatory violations and complaints. The number of violations in and of itself is startling, but the nature of the violations raises additional concerns. These concerns pertain to equality between low income citizens and high income citizens and the view that regulatory bodies have of each of these demographics. By implementing citywide standards that are fully protective of human health, Los Angeles can not only correct this environmental injustice but also ensure that all of its residents are protected from oil operations, and disincentives the exploitation of the land and its people.
Our addiction to the oil production industry over the past century has taken a massively detrimental toll on the city of Los Angeles. Creating policies and effective management to mitigate these effects is the main issue that needs to be addressed. However, like most things, that is far easier said than done. Fossil fuel as a commodity is hard to manage not only in the sense of who can claim responsibility, but also our societies unwillingness to let go of it. The fetiziation of commodities, as Marx discusses, is a dangerous phenomenon when linked to a product as detrimental as fossil fuels. The word fetish can be defined as an object that people fixate on or are obsessed with and that prevents them from seeing the true effect behind it. Marx believed that when people try to understand the world in which they live, they fixate on commodities, what the demand for a product is, and so on. According to Marx commodities are fetishes that keep people from seeing the truth about the society they live in. As a society we have become accustomed to a standard of living that is perpetuated by the presence of the product of fossil fuel. Easy access to energy is a luxury that many of us cannot imagine surviving without. We are to obsessed with this luxury that we neglect to realize its long term detrimental effects.
This obsession is what incentivises oil production companies to extract the resource at such a high rate. They end up needing to turn to methods of exploitation such as well stimulation and drilling in unconventional sites to meet the demand of the product. A concept put forth by marxist geographer David Harvey reflects the process of this obsession. The term is “Accumulation by Dispossession”. Some of the examples Harvey presents in his original essay are “the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights[…]into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power”(Harvey 74). The term essentially refers to the ‘accumulation’ of capital by the few through ‘dispossessing’ the public and private entities of their own wealth, land, or other resources. These processes can be summarized as large institutions taking advantage of those who rely on them. These institutions manipulate global and domestic affairs and use commodification and privatization to control the accumulation of capital.
This begs the same question as before, how do we manage such a commodity. One that society is unwilling to part with and that can’t be easily assigned responsibility to. In the 1960s, ecologist Garrett Hardin came up with the his famed analogy of a “commons”. The composure of the analogy was in an effort to support his claim that as the population of humans grows, there would be growing stress on finite resources at global level, with the unavoidable result of overexploitation and evental ruin. He titled this analogy the Tragedy of the Commons. More specifically, this phrase means that an increase in human population increases pressure on limited resources, which subsequently puts any hope of a sustainable society at risk.
Yet, while Hardin’s intent and idea is logical, realistically it’s a controversial system to implement. The tragedy of the commons may partially be averted by private property, or something similar. But the air and waters on Earth cannot realistically be institutionalised, and even if it could, it’s not likely human nature would let that last. The issue must be prevented by different means, such as incentivizing policies or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to efficiently get rid of his pollutants than to dispose of them untreated. Yet, for instance, the operator of a factory next to a stream, whose property extends to the middle of the stream, often has trouble seeing why it is not their natural right to pollute waters in their own property. This plays into the notion of how as a collective society we perceive nature and its value to us.
We commodifiey any aspect of nature that helps advance our own agendas. The commodification of nature is discussed in the Bridge reading, Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy. As a society, it is necessary for us look further down the road and adjust ourselves accordingly. Without the implementation of proper laws and policies society will run itself into the ground there is not enough being done to combat the world systems that have been established. The current policies surrounding these issues require elaborate modifications to adapt to this new perception of the commons.
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