Hydraulic Fracturing in the Urban Fabric
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is often thought of as an activity to extract natural gas from under of the rural lands of Pennsylvania. Most people don’t realize, however, that fracking is also used to extract oil. And some of it is carried out in the midst of the urban fabric. Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the country. Indeed, the Los Angeles Oil Basin is home to 42 active oil fields. A consultant for Occidental Petroleum was quoted as saying that Los Angeles' part of the Monterey Shale holds "more oil per square meter ...than any other oil-producing basin on the planet.”
Oil extraction in the Los Angeles Basin area oil fields, shown above, looks quite different from stereotypical fracking sites: no compressors, no endless truck traffic on rural roads. Rather, in L.A. oil is drilled in and around urban neighborhoods. (Downtown L.A. is in the upper left of the above photo). Traditionally, oil here is brought to the surface using pumpjacks, the iconic rocker arms seen in oil fields across the country. While oil has been extracted in L.A. for well over 100 years, pumpjacks are giving way to other well stimulation techniques, including – most recently – hydraulic fracturing. Right now, we know at least two large oil fields are fracked: the Brea-Olinda field near the city of Whittier, and the Inglewood field in the city of Los Angeles.
Here is one of those oil fields where fracking takes place. It is the portion of Los Angeles known as Baldwin Hills, and it is home to the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country. It’s an 1,100-acre area with an estimated recovery potential of 400 million barrels of oil. Since the field was discovered in 1924, 1,475 wells have been drilled there. In 2012, the field contained approximately 469 active wells and 168 active waterflood injection wells. Inglewood Oil Field’s brown rolling hills are not inhabited, because it’s an oil field. However, residential streets run right next door, and roughly 300,000 people live near the field. You can stand in the yards of some of these houses and look right at the pumpjacks and recently, you can see the tall drilling rigs of the renewed oil boom.
The Inglewood Oil field is one face of the of the urban extraction experience. Another is the practice of tucking small well pads on sites anywhere and everywhere in the urban fabric. The dark grey site at the center of this photo is home to 21 wells, 11 of which are currently active. The adjacent building with a large white roof is a high school for disabled children. The building below it with a track field is St. Mary’s College. Nearby residents have reported health impacts including adult onset asthma, headaches, chronic bronchitis, nose bleeds, and trouble concentrating. They associate these symptoms with the oil extraction process. Indeed, their symptoms are known to be associated with chemicals that are used in the oil extraction process. Although this site has been active since at least 1977, the impacts on health from this site have not been monitored at all.
This is a slice of the predominantly African American community of West Athens in Los Angeles County. It’s also part of the expansion of active oil extraction in the urban fabric: These new wells started production in 2012. The red arrows indicate extraction sites. On the left, the arrow points to fuel storage tanks – temporary holding tanks for the extracted oil, connected to underground pipelines. The middle arrow indicates an extraction pad within a few yards of the neighbor’s house and swimming pool. The third red arrow indicates more fuel storage tanks. The site includes an extraction well that is not visible: When these GoogleMaps images were taken, they had not yet been constructed.
Just outside the frame of this photo sits another extraction site, just doors away from an in-home preschool.
Unfortunately, no one is tracking the health impacts of urban oil extraction. There is no monitoring of health impacts, short-term or long-term. Nor is there a requirement for any monitoring of possible emissions. Further, the current efforts to regulate fracking in California do nothing to ensure that human health is protected from the emissions of this activity.
While much of the concern raised about fracking has focused on water impacts, in the urban environment it is critically important to understand fracking’s air impacts. Of particular concern are the air toxics emitted during the drilling and operating phases of extraction, including during fracking, since we know that even low levels of some of the chemicals that may be present can cause serious health problems, especially when there are pre-natal and childhood exposures. We also know that the health impacts may take a long time to become obvious. Residents may be exposed to chemicals that occur naturally, such as the volatile chemicals in the underground pockets of oil. Or they may inhale chemicals used in the extraction process, such as the hydrochloric acid used to stimulate some wells. Unfortunately, no one is conducting even the most basic air quality monitoring.
The issues raised by urban oil extraction are significant and so far under-appreciated and under-studied. PSR-LA is leading the effort to ensure that the issues are identified, understood, and addressed to ensure that people’s health is protected. We invoke the precautionary principle, placing the burden of proof on the oil companies to prove that urban fracking is safe, rather than using neighbors’ bodies, including our children, as “bio-monitors” that prove later that this activity was unsafe. We are calling for a moratorium on fracking and other “unconventional extraction” methods until we better understand the risks associated with the process. If, contrary to common sense, the practice continues, then at the very least we need robust monitoring of emissions and tracking of health effects, as well as an end to the oil companies’ withholding of critical information as “trade secrets.” Collectively, we should all reject the efforts of industry to simultaneously kill efforts to collect data about emissions while insisting that their activities are safe because no one can “prove” harm from their emissions. Clearly, here, not being able to “prove” harm is not the same as declaring that the activity is safe.
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