"Oil is like a wild animal," oilman Jean Paul Getty famously said. "Whoever captures it has it." That may be so, but most people would probably agree that wild animals don't belong in crowded urban areas. Oil fields, on the other hand, seem a little more polarizing. A new documentary short from Vice News examines how the 3,000 active oil wells in Los Angeles affect the people who live and work nearby.
Not surprisingly, the one oil industry representative shown in the video doesn't believe that residents of neighborhoods where drilling is taking place have any cause for concern. The neighborhood activists, environmental lawyers, health experts, and community members interviewed by Vice beg to differ. As the video points out, drilling operations are known to produce carcinogenic chemicals that can affect the health of those living in close proximity to facilities. The problem is that there have not been enough studies that conclusively link health problems with any one operation—as Occidental Urban and Environmental Policy Professor Bhavna Shamasunder points out, LA has so much drilling, it's tough to say which facilities are causing which ailments.
With drilling going on just feet from houses and schools, close government oversight seems crucial. But, as the video shows, that's not often something that oil well operators are likely to receive. A statement given to the video's producers from Mayor Eric Garcetti's chief sustainability officer acknowledges the health risks of drilling, but argues that there's not much the city can do. Meanwhile, because oil drillers have operated in Los Angeles for over a century, many wells are old enough that important regulatory rules imposed by the Clean Air Act and other environmental protection laws do not apply.
In October, an audit by the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources found that the regulatory agency itself had failed to perform mandatory annual reviews of most oil sites in the LA area. The video suggests that with government officials reluctant to ensure the safety of oil sites, that job too often falls on the shoulders of those most affected by health risks.