Fracking. It is a non-euphonius term that rhymes with cracking and whose sound connotes all kinds of unpleasant thoughts. But to certain residents of the Los Angeles area it is much more than just a unpleasant sound; it’s an oil-company practice that many in the nation and around the world consider both highly destructive and life-threatening, so much so that the Los Angeles City Council has passed a resolution against it, Culver City has called for a statewide ban against it, and at least one Assembly bill has been proposed limiting the practice. But it continues.
The controversial method of oil fracking–the proper name is hydraulic fracturing–is generating alarm among households in some of the richest portions of Black Los Angeles–Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills and View Park–as well as in Culver City.
Areas of immense concern range from fear of water contamination and air pollution to property damage and an increased chance of earthquakes.
What may have begun as a Republican political rallying cry for more oil drilling a few years ago has resulted in very real quality-of-life distress for about 12,000 area residents.
Spanning about two square miles, the Baldwin Hills portion of the historic Inglewood Oil Field–the third largest in America–is itself one of the nation’s largest contiguous urban oil fields. It stretches from La Cienega Boulevard on the east to the Culver City border on the west, to Slauson Avenue on the south and Stocker Avenue on the north.
The area, including nearby Ladera Heights, makes up one of the nation’s most prominent upper-middle-class African American communities. Since African Americans began moving into the area during the 1960s after the restrictive housing covenants were broken, it has been home to such celebrities as Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Tina Turner, actresses Regina King and Viola Davis, Mayor Tom Bradley, and actress/dancer Debbie Allen and her husband, former basketball great Norm Nixon, and a number of today’s Black entertainers.
Besides its near-sublime views of the Los Angeles basin, the quiet, meandering streets are just minutes from downtown and major freeways; and to the Black professional class, its shady trees and secluded landscape for decades have served as a communal refuge from busy city life below.
Fracking has taken place worldwide for many years, but with the pressing need to tap new sources of oil and natural gas, the petroleum industry has developed advanced–and uncertified–methods of coaxing more oil and gas from the ground that opponents of the procedure and watchdog groups nationwide have vehemently rejected.
A history of the precarious typography of Baldwin Hills keeps residents naturally on edge. In December 1963, the Baldwin Hills reservoir collapsed, sending thousands of gallons of water sweeping toward Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards. Within 77 minutes, five people were killed and 65 homes were ripped from their foundations and washed downhill. It was revealed that over-exploration of the oil field had caused a pencil-thin crack along the face of the reservoir.
One year ago an agreement between the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP), the oil company, was reached to resolve four lawsuits by the Community Health Councils Inc., the Natural Resources Defense Council, the city of Culver City, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and the Citizen’s Coalition for a Safe community.
The suit challenged the board’s vote in October 2008 authorizing PXP to develop 600 new wells over the next 20 years in Baldwin Hills without any further public hearings or environmental review.
The dissenting groups claimed the county violated the California Environment Quality Act by not submitting an “adequate environment impact report” before adopting the Baldwin Hill Community Standards District in the regulation of 1,000 acres of oil drilling and production activities. Key elements of the settlement include: reduced drilling of new wells, increased air quality monitoring, more stringent noise limits and mandatory recurring health and environment justice assessments.
“This is a very dangerous and unhealthy process,” said Brenna Norton of Food and Water Watch of Los Angeles, who, along with Citizen Coalition for a Safe Community, have condemned the production process. “There are far too many households within proximity of the field to continue this still-unproven method of oil drilling.”
Oil fracking, simplified, is a procedure in which water and various chemicals are forced underground under very high pressure to create or increase fractures in surrounding rock in order to release petroleum and gas.
As the pressure builds, it continues to enlarge the fracture and eventually a proppant, usually sand, ceramic or other particulates, is injected to prevent the fractures from closing once the pressure is released. Then engineers force a slurry of gels, foams, compressed gases (nitrogen and carbon dioxide) underground to form a hardened ring around a core through which oil is extracted.
Once the process is finished, the new propped fractures provide pathways for fluids to flow to the core.
The trouble is, say residents, no one knows what type of chemicals are mixed within the water level and they fear water, soil and air pollutants will spread dangerously throughout the area. Residents say this still precarious method of oil extraction should not be tested where people live.
Nationwide, residents living near fracked petroleum wells have filed more than 1,000 complaints regarding tainted water, severe illnesses, livestock deaths and even fish kills. California Assembly Bill 972 was supposed to place a moratorium on fracking, but activists say the measure is not strong enough. It reportedly does not provide any standards, guidelines or minimum requirements for regulation nor stop new wells from being dug.
“The bill, as it stands now, is way too weak,” Norton said, “because it only applies to old wells already drilled. Hundreds of new wells are being proposed; this process is not safe by any measure. There should be no fracking taking place, not just a measure to delay the inevitable damage to the community. There should be no minimum requirement to proceed until PXP can prove the process is safe.”
PXP, based in Houston, in 2005 pushed for a huge expansion of drilling operations in Baldwin Hills. In 1924, when Baldwin Hills was mostly farm and grazing land, about 145 barrels a day were extracted from a relatively small area within the larger Inglewood field, but today that whole field, in addition to the Wilmington Oil Field, about 15 miles to the south, combine to make one of the world’s most prolific oil reserves–about 2 million barrels a day.
A spokesman for PXP, John Martini, manager of environmental health, safety and government affairs, said: “In recognition of questions and concerns from the community, PXP is conducting the first site study in California. It will be available for review later this year. As to the Inglewood Oil Field, the community has more questions answered than any other community in California where PXP is operating.
“[There] has been a common observation, a misunderstanding and confusion of what fracking is,”said Martini. “Fracking is not an all-inclusive process in well-drilling, it is a short-completion process. The Inglewood field is regulated by the Community Standards District. It is California’s most regulated oil field in terms of odor, noise, hours of delivery and aesthetic concerns. We conduct annual surveys. We check for property damage. We check for links from the production process to any damage from homes in the area.”
Drilling for oil had been well established in California since the dawn of the 20th century. In Los Angeles, Edward Doheny tapped one of the early local reserves (at present-day Dodger Stadium) and an expansive oil boom resulted, covering many former agriculture fields with craggy, wooden oil derricks and “grasshopper” pumping machines.
By the early 1920s, Los Angeles was producing one-quarter of the world’s oil supply. It was then that railroads made the shift from coal extracted in the East, to oil recovered in the West. The oil industry got an additional boost when the city’s love affair with the automobile began in the 1920s as oil production in Baldwin Hills began in earnest.
According to a July 2008 issue of OurWeekly: “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. This phenomenon occurred as so-called ‘wildcatters’ (exploratory oil prospectors) penetrated large underground reservoirs under high pressure from millions of years of evolution.”
Despite the ready reserve of available “sweet crude,” the population explosion after World War II brought an end to the thousands of oil derricks once dotting the Southern California landscape as residents began to abhor the smell and unsightly landscape in favor of freeways and the newly innovated housing tract.
By 2002, oil production in Los Angeles ranged from 2.5 to 3.1 million barrels a year. In 2008, a Community Standards District was adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for Baldwin Hills to mitigate the common problems related to oil drilling. These concerns amounted to minimal aesthetic factors such as an unsightly landscape, increased industrial noise, foul odors, heavy equipment and traffic concerns. Opponents of fracking say potential physical damage and health concerns didn’t seem to be a priority. Also, that year a required environmental impact report on the field suggested that there should be no deepening of existing wells and no new wells dug until further study and tests are completed.
In June, more than 450 residents met at a Culver City Council meeting to voice complaints, bringing with them attorneys, geologists and even a neurologist to discuss possible health hazards and property destruction associate,d with the drilling plan. The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution in June banning oil fracking a day after Assembly Bill 972 was adopted.
According to a Los Angeles Times article in June, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, who then represented the county’s second district, may have pressured county staff to increase the number of wells PXP could drill.
“The California Department of Conservation (its division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Research) has been conducting a listening tour, and the complaints made by residents of Baldwin Hills and Culver City demonstrate that this drilling process must not continue in any form,” said Rebecca Rona of Frack-Free Culver City, a local activist environmental group. “Everything from micro-earthquakes, water and soil contamination, sink holes, home fracturing (foundations are literally split) and methane gas emission are facts that are generating serious health and property concerns. The new techniques used by the oil industry have not been tested sufficiently, particularly near residential neighborhoods. This process is not safe. There needs to be a complete ban.”
Food and Water Watch Los Angeles reports that, nationwide, oil fracking has contributed to more than 1,000 cases of water contamination, along with regional air pollution from the release of methane gas. Local geologists cite the constant threat of earthquakes, which may be exacerbated because of the proximity of the Newport-Inglewood Fault. There is visible and recent property damage to many homes near the Baldwin Hills field.
Even worse, an article titled “Fracking Nation” in the May 2011 issue of Discover magazine reveals findings by geochemist Tracy Bank showing “that high-pressure fluids striking the shale [rock] could dislodge naturally occurring radioactive compounds such as uranium and strontium, putting groundwater at risk of contamination.
“‘Shale is a garbage-bucket rock,’ she says. ‘The more organically rich the shale is, the more natural gas is present, but the more other stuff is in there too.’
“To determine how fracking fluids mobilize metals in the shale, Bank and her team solicited rock samples from drill sites in western New York and Pennsylvania. When the researchers subjected their samples to beamed ions–a high-precision way to dislodge surface chemicals–they confirmed that shale rocks contain a suite of toxic metals, including uranium, barium, chromium, zinc, and arsenic. Bank also discovered something new and disturbing: The metals were chemically bound to hydrocarbons, the organic compounds that make up natural gas. Separated from the rock, uranium or any other toxic metal could easily hitch a ride when the drilling wastewater is siphoned back to the surface . . . .”
Well-known Los Angeles journalist and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who resides in Baldwin Hills, believes the process of fracking has cost him serious property damage.
“Our home was knocked off its foundation and began to shift and slide downhill,” he said. “It started in mid 2006. We’ve been living here for 20 years and nothing like this occurred until they started drilling. PXP came in and people immediately saw an expansion of drilling. My neighbors’ homes are just as bad. It is no accident that these damages occurred almost immediately after PXP began this process. In our case, the damages amounted to more than $200,000, and the drilling still has not stopped.”
Hutchinson echoes the call for a moratorium on the drilling ” . . . until there is an unbiased, independent review not conducted by PXP.”
Food and Water Watch also reports that cities in Vermont, New York and New Jersey confirm the same damages and health hazards due to fracking. Norton sees the potential harm to communities as analogous to someone exploding “a bomb 10,000 feet below” in order to fracture the granite by huge force to allow water and various chemicals (suspected among these, cyanide, chromium, mercury, etc.) to permeate the ground and make the extraction easier. “There are no effective safety measures with this type of technology,” Norton said. ” It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.”