Backyard bonanza or environmental time bomb?
Oil companies are revisiting formerly abandoned drill sites forsaken years ago as being unprofitable.
This is not surprising considering the recent skyrocketing gasoline prices and oil costs per barrel. Anyone familiar with the large open spaces between those bastions of African American affluence, Baldwin Hills, View Park and Ladera Heights, --especially at the junction of Stocker street and La Cienega boulevard, is aware of the presence of apparatus that go by such curious monikers as “pump jacks,” “nodding donkeys,” “horse head,” pumps, or more commonly oil derricks, that have been a staple of our local landscape for the past 80 years. As fuel expenses begin to affect every function of modern life, activity in this area, never completely idle, has seen a new surge of vitality within recent months.
Bubblin’ crude, Roaring ‘20s style
Drilling for oil had been well established in California with the dawn of the 20th century as railroads converted from coal (which needed to be exported from the east), to the more plentiful and locally obtainable oil as a method of propulsion. The industry got an additional boost with the introduction of the automobile in the 1920s, when oil production in the area we now know as Baldwin Hills began, establishing Southern California as the Saudi Arabia of its time.
These initial forays into oil exploration were often punctuated by “oil gushers,” the sudden eruption of oil from the ground to distances as high as 200 feet into the air. This dramatic phenomenon occurred as “wildcatters” (as exploratory oil prospectors were known) penetrated large underground crude reservoirs under high pressure from millions of years of evolution. As time went on, sustained mining of these sites naturally decreased the pressure and made it progressively harder to extract the crude as time went on, thereby reaching the point where further harvesting became unprofitable.
A new lease on life
The process of extracting fossil fuel from the ground is a complicated one, with several different methods available including recent innovations involving harvesting shale deposits. The largest deposits can be found in the continental United States, particularly in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. A common method of oil extraction is to heat the shale – in the absence of oxygen, until the oil is removed as a liquid. The liquid is then cooled back into a condensable oil. Tar sands, another source of oil (large quantities of which have been found and recently refined lucaratively in Canada and Venezuela), also includes the application of heat and/or solvents to separate the oil from the sand.
These new alternate sources require extreme amounts of effort to successfully process the oil within, which is why they have not been popular for production until recently, when skyrocketing gasoline prices made it profitable to do so. Locally, shale and tar sand mining have not made a significant impact on oil production, but reexamination of existing sites, like the Baldwin Hills Oil Field, have yielded new economic potential. In due course, when the oil industry took a second look at abandoned wells, simultaneous advancements in industrial and scientific applications enabled smaller companies to operate efficiently in the shadow of the majors by uncovering deposits over looked by previous generations.
This was facilitated by the introduction of the desk top computer that has transformed so much of society. In the field of oil exploration, the implementation of 3D geological mapping and 3D reservoir simulation software programs have enabled petroleum engineers to better understand the structural composition of potential sites, improve the accuracy of drilling locations, and minimize exploration costs.
Hal Bopp, state oil and gas supervisor in the Department of Conservation, acknowledges that new drilling in California has accelerated, but primarily in Kern County, – out of 1500 new “notices to drill” recorded this year, 1250 have been located in Kern County. L. A. County itself is split into halves; District 2 - the northern portion (primarily), Santa Clarita included with the Ventura site, and District 1 -the southern portion joined with Orange County in District 1, includes production in Wilmington, by far the most productive.
Nonetheless, Baldwin Hills continues to be a lucrative asset even though it is out paced by its more productive neighbors.
The desire to utilize the ample remaining local oil deposits is counter balanced by the difficulty of accessing these precious resources without disrupting the environment or quality of life for those living in Baldwin Hills and adjacent communities. Among the hazards associated with oil production are the danger of fire due to the flammable liquid itself, and the possible threat of cancer from the toxic fumes and by products of the oil wells.
Some of these by products of production are toxic chemicals such as Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene, collectively know as BTEX. All have been linked in medical literature to ailments that impact the central nervous system (Benzene and Toluene), illnesses such as leukemia and other cancer related disorders (Benzene), reproduction difficulties (Toluene), and maladies affecting the respiratory and neurological systems (Ethylbenzene and Xylene), though the effects of these last two cheimicals are still being investigated.
Part of the procedure for removing the oil from the ground in the Baldwin Hills area involves the injection of water or some other substance into the ground to force the crude oil to the surface. This in turn can create a void (an empty space previously occupied by the oil) or movement of a fault line or geologic fracture, which has been attributed to the 1963 collapse of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, which in turn caused five deaths and massive property damage.
The process of extracting oil has a tendency to disturb other gases already present in the ground. These gases may then rise to the surface via the oil wells bored into ground, or through fault lines that are a staple of earthquake prone Southern California. The perils of migrating gas was vividly demonstrated in 1985 when the Ross Department Store in the Fairfax District near Farmers Market was destroyed from a gas explosion, with gas induced fires burning through sidewalk cracks for days afterwards. Similar, but not as severe incidents of gas seepage have been recorded near the La Brea Tar Pits (1999), and again in the Fairfax District (2003). The controversial Belmont Learning Center’s construction was complicated by seepage from an existing oil well underneath the building site. Oil fields throughout the county, especially those assembled in the early 20th Century, are susceptible to subsidence or movement along the fault lines beneath them.
Mark Salkin became involved in this issue as the president of the Culver City Crest Home Owners Association two and a half years ago, when the Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP), which currently owns the Baldwin Hills extraction field, struck a methane deposit in the process of drilling for oil. The subsequent link made several residents sick (with out any fatalities), and the county became involved with allegations that PXP was not observing environmental safety guidelines.
Salkin told Our Weekly that he was given a personal tour of the oil facility by PXP Vice President Steve Rusch a few years ago, and observed numerous sites in production or in an exploratory mode.
As noted, the derricks in the area are out in the open for all to see, with little or no cosmetic enhancement. All this is in sharp contrast to pumps located in Beverly Hills (where image is paramount), say critics. One notable well sits right next to Beverly Hills High encased in a ten story structure that has been artfully decorated as well as sound proofed to mask the gyrations of the contraption inside. Derricks in other parts of the southland from Long Beach to West L.A. have been tastefully obscured via shrubbery or other methods of camouflage.
Concerns and proposals
The necessity to secure additional petroleum sources as opposed to the desire to live in a safe environment makes for a conflicted relationship at best. Over the past few years, inhabitants of local neighborhoods have complained of offensive odors in the area, giving rise to fears that this renewed activity may have harmful impact on their health. Curiously, the majority of these complaints have come from the Culver Crest area of Culver City. Baldwin Hills residents have reported the smell of methane as they drive Stocker Avenue between Crenshaw and La Cienega boulevards.
Given its history, it is perhaps symbolic that a press conference covering this little discussed topic, was held this past June 19 at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, the site of the disastrous 1963 flood, now reclaimed as an urban park and wild life refuge. Those in attendance included members of the Greater Baldwin Hills Alliance, a consortium of neighborhood organizations in the affected area, the news media including channels 4 and 7, and various and sundry interested parties. PXP most notably, did not have an official representative there.
Among those on hand was Culver Crest homeowner and former Culver City Deputy Attorney Laura D’Auri, who was one of the first to voice a complaint about the adverse effects of local drilling in her neighborhood. Since then, they have registered numerous complaints of emissions to the Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which in turn has promptly responded.
The majority of these reports have also occurred during the early morning, arousing inhabitant suspicions that the oil company is engaged in questionable practices, – possibly overnight, it does not want the public to know.
During the press conference, the Alliance presented a list of recommendations aimed at appeasing both the interests of the petroleum industry and the community. Along with addressing health and environmental concerns, it suggests including residents on a committee that would make decisions concerning the area.
Other possible hazards
Sam Atwood of the AQMD told Our Weekly that the dangers of handling methane primarily revolve around its explosiveness and flammability. Petroleum refineries regularly install vent pipes to safely bring the gas to the surface, stretching 30 plus feet into the air so that it may dissipate into the air.
Going on, Atwood says that PXP has had 50 registered complaints since 1999, including a 2006 violation that settled for a $25,000 penalty. This year, they recorded two violations this past February, which have yet to be settled.
Reportly, PXP wants to implement another 1000 oil wells. This in turn raises the anxiety of home owners and tenants about oil company intentions, repetition of the Baldwin Reservoir and Ross/Fairfax tragedies, and health issues in general.
Underhanded motives or deception?
The days of the iconic oil gushers that stereotypically spouted hundreds of feet into the air with little or no coaxing are past us. Although the need for a fundamental restructuring of global energy is obvious, our dependence on oil will remain into the foreseeable future as the technology for alternative propulsion lingers in its infancy. Given these circumstances, the urge to exploit potential sources of petroleum within close proximity casts a shadow over the public interest. This has been manifested at drilling sites across the globe, with documented examples of wild life devastation, damage to soil fertility, contamination of the air and water supply, and destruction to marine environments.
Potential effects on the environment, along with ramifications to air and water quality, noise levels, and seismic activity, are regulated by the state conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which presented PXP with an environmental award in 2006 (PXP has received similar awards from the federal Bureau of Land Management, and L.A. County). DOGGR had previously rescinded several drilling permits to PXP after an audit revealed improprieties including a conflict of interest in which a DOGGR employee did not disclose his ownership in several oil companies involved in the transaction (see “Probe Led to PXP License Cancellations” By Gary Walker at http://www.socal.com/print/).
Right now, the county has no further jurisdiction over PXP and its activities in the area. Although the company has reportedly met all of the expectations set before it, its apparent reluctance to inform other involved parties of their plans to drill additional wells, or facilitate communication with those adjacent to its excavation sites, raises the concerns of inhabitants as they push for community involvement (PXP did not respond to Our Weekly’s requests to participate in this article).
Despite the additional funds to be parlayed into oil company coffers, the consensus is that the remaining fossil fuels coaxed from the earth underneath Southern California, will not significantly alter our national dependence on foreign resources. Nevertheless, the machinations between the oil company, the state and county infrastructure, and the inhabitants within the communities of Baldwin Hills, Culver Crest, and Ladera Heights are sure to continue.
Report all suspected gas leaks to the AQMD hotline at 1-800-CUT-SMOG
Some of the sources used in the compilation of this article include the following:
-“Environmental hazards posed by the Los Angeles Basin urban oilfields: an historical perspective of lessons learned,” by G. V. Chilingar and B. Endres, from the January, 2005 issue of Environmental Geology.
-The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC) website (http://www.odac-info.org/).
-The L.A. County Department of Regional Planning (http://planning.co.la.ca.us/default.htm).
-The Oil & Gas Journal (http://www.ogj.com/index.cfm).
-Community Health Councils (CHC) Inc. (http://www.chc-inc.org/index.cfm).
-The Culver Crest Neighborhood Association (CCNA)(http://culvercrest.org/).
-The Southern California Community Internet and Directory website (www.socal.com/).