It's past time for L.A. to seriously regulate its oil and gas wells

For decades, city officials in Los Angeles have taken a hands-off approach to oil and gas drilling, allowing companies to operate and even expand near homes and schools with little scrutiny. Now faced with increasing pressure from community and environmental groups, elected officials are beginning to step up their oversight of roughly 1,000 active wells within the city limits. They have a lot more to do.

This week City Council President Herb Wesson called for immediately hiring a full-time expert to oversee drilling operations and coordinate agencies responsible for regulating exploration and extraction. Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Times his office is already interviewing candidates for the job. The city had a "petroleum administrator" in the 1960s, '70s and '80s who'd been responsible for addressing issues related to oil extraction. But the position has gone unfilled in recent decades, leaving no coordination in City Hall on oil and gas issues, no tracking of past oil drilling permits and no follow-up on conditions imposed on oil operations to protect their neighbors.

Yet, community groups say, the city continued to "rubber stamp" plans to drill new wells and expand operations with no environmental review and inadequate safeguards for the neighborhood, particularly in low-income and minority communities in South L.A. and Wilmington. Last year, Youth for Environmental Justice, the Center for Biological Diversity and South Central Youth Leadership Coalition sued the city for violating the California Environmental Quality Act.. They also allege officials let oil companies in predominantly black and Latino communities operate with dirtier, noisier equipment and fewer protections than the city required for operations in predominantly white communities in West L.A.

Even city staff in a 2014 Planning Department report acknowledged there was "significant room for improvement" in the way L.A. regulates oil and gas activity. The department urged the City Council to hire a technical expert to advise city officials on better ways to permit and regulate oil operations to protect communities. Yet community groups are still waiting for the city to act.

Wesson's proposal to hire a new oil administrator is a good first step, but it's only a first step. The massive gas leak in Porter Ranch has forced city leaders to confront the tremendous risks of having oil and gas operations in urban areas. But there are many neighborhoods in L.A. that have been suffering because of the city's hands-off approach. That cannot continue. The city has a responsibility to its residents to properly evaluate and regulate oil and gas wells.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 04, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Regulating oil and gas wells" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe