When Dominic Gibbs’ family moved to the Harbor City neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1990s, the young child had a lingering question for his mother: What is that massive 20-foot-tall pump next to our house?
“I always think about when I first saw the pump, because I thought it was just something that happened in that movie, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” Gibbs remembered, referencing a 1960s TV show and 1993 film about a poor rural family that moves to the upscale California city after oil was discovered on their property.
In fact, the bobbing heads of oil pump jacks can be seen in the midst of many residential neighborhoods across America’s second-largest city. They tower near parks where children play and along the sides of busy streets. Contrary to Gibbs’ childhood belief and popular understanding, LA is home to the largest urban network of oil and gas production in the U.S.
But that will soon change. In a unanimous decision this month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban the creation of any new oil wells and phase out all oil drilling over the next 20 years. The move comes on the heels of a city ban on gas stoves in new residential and commercial buildings and a state law that requires all vehicles sold in California to be electric by 2035. The changes are an effort to accelerate the country’s shift toward clean energy, a commitment that will come at the expense of a massive source of revenue.
From an environmental and health perspective, the shift will disproportionately benefit Black and Latino Angelenos. Across the city, there are more than 5,000 oil and gas wells, and predominantly Black and Latino communities are home to a higher concentration of them compared to majority-white areas. The Gibbs’ family home, located in a neighborhood that has a Black population four times larger than the city’s average, sits on top of the third-largest oil field in the U.S.
A 2022 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the disparities in communities of color are not coincidental. Formerly redlined communities, created to enforce segregation and relegate Black residents to cities’ undesirable areas, are home to roughly twice as many oil and gas drilling sites as non-redlined, predominantly white communities.
The practice continues to disproportionately harm Black residents in other places, such as Kansas City, Missouri, and some cities with large Black populations, like Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, are even poised to expand the practice.
More than 1 million Black Americans are exposed to the invisible forms of pollution from oil drilling, including noise, air, and water pollution. Living near oil and gas drilling sites has been linked to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, severe respiratory illnesses, and depression. It also contributes to a significant health impact affecting Black communities: maternal health. Proximity to oil and gas wells is linked to birth complications, including preterm births, neural tube defects, and adverse reproductive outcomes, such as increased maternal mortality rates.
The decision to ban the long-standing practice is largely due to more than 25 years of community organizing, including a decade-long campaign from the STAND L.A. coalition, a collection of seven LA-based, Black and Latino-led environmental justice organizations.
The state’s oil industry, which has lobbied against the move for years, claims the action will erase a $250 million industry in LA, while negatively impacting 8,000 jobs associated with oil extraction and leaving the state more dependent on imported foreign oil. In October, the California Independent Petroleum Association, representing more than 300 oil and gas companies, wrote a letter to the LA City Council disputing claims of “detrimental health effects” from oil and gas drilling and production operations.
The City Council and community organizers, pointing to multiple studies showing the impacts of oil drilling on human health and the environment, have also highlighted analyses that show a national clean energy transition would create millions of jobs.
Many questions about the city’s ban remain unanswered, however, including detailed timelines of each drilling site’s closure, how land ownership rights will be handled, and, most notably for residents, how oil companies will ensure the proper capping of oil wells.
There are more than 3 million capped and idled oil wells in the U.S., which are collectively responsible for emitting 281,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere every year, a 2020 Reuters investigation found. More than 25% of California’s methane emissions come from leaking oil wells, a 2019 study found. Methane — the second-largest contributor to climate change — warms the planet by 86 times as much as carbon dioxide.
Last week, Capital B traveled through LA’s Black neighborhoods that are home to oil drilling to speak to residents about their experiences living next to oil wells, their expectations for the phasing-out process, and what they want to see replace these sites in the future.
Victoria Richardson, a resident of LA’s Harbor Gateway North neighborhood
Victoria Richardson’s intimate relationship with oil drilling began in 1997 when she moved to her home in LA’s Harbor Gateway North neighborhood, which is 45% Black. The oil well operating next door became quite a nuisance. At one point, heaps of oil poured over her yard from the drill site, ruining her furniture. Richardson says she was compensated for the damages, but some of the more unscrupulous impacts from the site are hard to put a dollar figure on.
“At the beginning, there were a lot of rats that infested my home from the oil field,” she told Capital B as the oil pump dipped up and down beside her home.
“The other major problem was the noise,” she said. “I’ve gotten accustomed to it now, but I still don’t open my windows at times because it’s so loud and the smell can be potent.”
As Richardson has learned about the impacts of oil drilling on human health, she has begun connecting the dots to her own life. Richardson, who has heart murmurs, and her husband regularly experience lightheadedness when the operator removes oil from the site.
“Living here, there are things that you just don’t think about, so it becomes normal, but it’s really not,” she said, referring to her neighborhood’s high concentration of oil wells. “It’s an impact every day, though, when you think about it.”
Looking toward the future, Richardson hopes that the city creates community meetings for residents so they can remain updated on the phasing-out process, with an emphasis on safeguarding current residents from any increased pollution if oil companies attempt to ramp up production before they’re forced to close wells for good. Once the oil wells are closed, she wouldn’t oppose developers building new homes on the land because of the city’s housing and homelessness issues.
Dominic Gibbs, a resident of LA’s Harbor City neighborhood
As a child, Dominic Gibbs’ neighborhood was defined by oil, he said. He lives in LA’s harbor area, home to the highest concentration of oil refineries west of Texas and the largest port in North America. Behind his home are railroad tracks that carry dozens of trains to and from the port every week, including oil trains.
At one point, there were more than 60 active oil wells in the half-square-mile community. Today, there are roughly two dozen, as oil pumps in the neighborhood have slowly been capped and idled over the last five years. Roughly two years ago, the oil well beside his home was decommissioned, opening up a number of plans for his family.
Gibbs said they have dreamed about buying the land around the idled oil well to extend the property for extended family. He would also love to see a community park for the neighborhood’s children or apartments to help tackle the area’s homelessness problems. “I feel like we deserve something here for all of us,” he said. “Something for the greater good.”
Like Richardson, Gibbs is especially concerned about the potential impacts of leaks on his community throughout the phasing-out process. An investigation by the FracTracker Alliance, an environmental organization, found that two idled oil wells in his neighborhood were leaking methane in August.
“We live here, and we’re so impacted, so we deserve to be included, especially if there was an instance where methane or something was leaking into the air that could be problematic for us.”