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City votes to phase out drilling in largest urban oil field in U.S.

On October 26, the City Council of Culver City, the site of the largest urban oil field in the U.S, stood up to the oil industry and voted unanimously to phase out oil drilling.

This vote took place as the Gavin Newsom Administration has expanded oil and gas drilling in California during a year of record heat, record fires and an unprecedented pandemic — and the City Council members hope that the Governor will take note of the historic decision.

CalGEM, the branch of the Department of Conservation in charge of oil and gas regulations, has approved 1540 new oil and gas drilling permits in California in 2020 to date. In fact, 185% more oil and gas drilling permits were issued in just the first six months of this year than in the same six months last year under Governor Newsom, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance.

This year to date, the administration has approved 54 fracking permits, including 6 permits for Aera Energy, a company jointly owned by Shell and ExxonMobil, in Kern County this month.

Unlike the state of California that has continued to issue oil and gas drilling permits, Culver City took a stand towards independence from the oil industry late in the evening of October 26. The council voted unanimously to phase out oil drilling, properly cap and remediate the site of the largest urban oil field in the country and develop a plan to enact a just transition for workers within five years.

The council supported the recommendations of the Oil Drilling Subcommittee, consisting of Vice-Mayor Alex Fisch and Councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells, according to a statement from Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA).

“We’re phasing out oil drilling in the Culver City portion of the Inglewood oil field, which happens to be the largest urban oil field in the United States,” said Culver City Councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells, Elected Officials to Protect California Co-Chair, “Our unanimous vote let other communities across the state know it’s possible to phase out oil fields.”

“We don’t have to be chained to the past, we can and should look to the future now by phasing out oil drilling. I hope Governor Gavin Newsom took note. The state should find avenues to help municipalities that depend on revenue from the oil companies become free from that dependency,” Sahil-Wells stated.

Both Councilmembers Daniel Lee and Thomas Smalls asked the council and staff to seriously consider calling for the end of oil and gas production in 2021, as recommended by Culver City’s Capital Investment Amortization Study as the first step in the approximate five year process.

Sahil-Wells said public testimony began around 10:30 pm and the final vote came around 11:45 pm.

A diverse array of organizations provided testimony in favor of the motion from labor unions, including United Steelworkers Local 675, California Nurses Association, and Jobs to Move America; environmental organizations, including Sierra Club, NRDC, Food & Water Action, Center for Biological Diversity; and renewable energy advocates including GRID Alternatives and the Clean Power Alliance, along with many local residents and medical professionals.

“The council voted unanimously for the measure, even though industry speakers outnumbered environmental advocates by 2:1,” Sahli-Wells said. “That’s because their decision didn’t happen overnight. Over many years and numerous meetings, Culver City residents voiced their opinions overwhelmingly in favor of a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean, renewable energy.”

“Communities across our state are suffering. We can’t move forward with fossil fuels,” said Sahli-Wells. “We must phase them out. We must create safety buffer areas around wells, and invest in the communities that have been hit the hardest by climate pollution. We must accelerate our transition to a 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035. The good news is that it’s possible. We’ve shown how it can be done in Culver City. We’re already running on 100 percent renewable energy with the Clean Power Alliance and we’re creating good union jobs to power our community.” 

“Over 30 cities, plus the county of Los Angeles and Ventura County are engaged in the process. We’re creating a city that is less dependent on fossil fuels with our progressive transportation, housing, energy, waste, and water policies. We’re doing it in Culver City and we can do it in the rest of the state, in fact, we must,” she concluded. 

Twelve years of work went into the Culver City success and was highlighted in a webinar cohosted by Sierra Club and The Climate Center.

“By closing the book on urban oil drilling in Culver City, City Council has opened the door to a proactive transition process that can live up to the city’s values.” said Ethan Senser, Southern California Organizer with Food & Water Action. “State and local officials should take note. Once we agree that fossil fuel infrastructure does not belong near our homes, we can start the conversation on what communities actually need instead.”

The Inglewood Oil Field in Los Angeles County is the 18th-largest oil field in the state and the second-most productive in the Los Angeles Basin. Discovered in 1924 and in continuous production ever since, in 2012 it produced approximately 2.8 million barrels of oil from some five hundred wells.

Since Newsom become Governor in January 2019, his regulators have approved over 7071 oil and gas drilling permits throughout the state. The number of fracking permits issued this year—despite a nine-month moratorium imposed by Newsom that ended last April—now comes to 54.

The permit numbers and locations are posted and updated on an interactive map at the website: NewsomWellWatch.com

Newsom claims he wants to ban fracking, but, contrary to the findings of public interest lawyers, says the legislature needs to act to end fracking. He recently committed to signing legislation to do that next year should it pass the legislature.

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However, a bill banning or imposing a moratorium on fracking is highly unlikely to pass through the Legislature when you consider the enormous influence the Western States Petroleum Association and oil companies wield over the Legislature, as well as the state regulatory agencies. 

For example, three California Senate Democrats who voted with Republicans on August 5 to defeat an amended version of AB 345, a bill that would require the Geologic Energy Management Division of the Department of Conservation to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, to “protect public health and safety near oil and gas extraction facilities, received $142,206 in donations from oil and gas corporations.

At this time, California and Alaska remain the only two oil and gas drilling states that have no health and safety setbacks around oil and gas wells. Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other oil and gas drilling states all have health and safety setbacks between wells and homes, hospitals, schools and other facilities.

In another example in August 2014, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s bill to ban offshore oil drilling from an area of state waters in the Santa Barbara Channel known as Tranquillon Ridge stalled on the Assembly Floor, effectively killing the bill, due to massive opposition by the oil industry.

In one of the many apparent conflict of interests that California regulatory agencies are known for, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Blue Ribbon Task Force that crafted the so-called “marine protected areas” in Southern California from 2009 to 2012: www.dfg.ca.gov/… 

She also served on the task forces for the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast from 2004 to 2012.

Only in a Big Oil state like California would an oil industry lobbyist chair a task force to create so-called “marine protected areas” – and then oppose a bill to ban oil drilling in a "marine protected area."

Only in a Big Oil state like California would a Legislator have to even author a bill to ban offshore oil drilling in a "marine protected area."

And only in a Big Oil state like California would the Legislature vote against a bill to stop oil drilling in a "marine protected area."

In addition, previous attempts in the California Legislature to ban or impose a moratorium on fracking have been defeated because of the enormous amount of money Big Oil spends on campaign donations to legislators and on lobbying every year.

Since Newsom become Governor in January 2019, his regulators have approved over 7071 oil and gas drilling permits throughout the state.

The reason why the Newsom administration is approving increasing numbers of oil and gas permits at a time of record fires, record heat and an unprecedented pandemic is due to the uncomfortable fact that the oil industry is the most powerful corporate lobby in California and exercises enormous influence over the Governor’s Office, the State Legislature and the State’s regulatory panels, commissions and panels.

Last year the Western States Petroleum Association, the most powerful lobbying organization in the state, pumped more money into lobbying than any other organization in California, spending a total of $8.8 million. The San Ramon-based Chevron pumped the third most money into lobbying, a total of $5.9 million. The lobbying expenses of the two oil industry giants came to a total of $14.7 million.

During the first quarter of 2020, at the same time that the Newsom Administration approved 1,623 total oil drilling permits, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) spent $1,089,702 lobbying state officials.

Chevron spent even more: $1,638,497 in the first quarter of 2020 to influence legislators, the Governor’s Office and other state officials. The two oil industry giants combined to spend a total of $2,728,199 lobbying from January 1-March 31.

In the second quarter of 2020, WSPA spent $1,220,986 while Chevron spent $974,322 on lobbying in California, a total of $2,195,308.

Big Oil’s tentacles extend far and wide in California politics. Lobbying is just one of the methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 7 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; and (7) contributing to non profit organizations.

A classic example of deep regulatory capture in California is how Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California at the same time that she was lobbying for new oil drilling off the West Coast.

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Yet corporate “environmental” groups strongly supported the oil lobbyist-led process, claiming it was “open, transparent and inclusive” when it was anything but.

Dan Bacher
Daily Kos