Oil drilling plan clears key hurdle

Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to regulate controversial new drilling at an oil field in southwest Los Angeles, a decision that came after a contentious three-hour public hearing and despite the protests of nearby residents.

The unanimous vote effectively clears the way for Plains Exploration & Production Co., or PXP, to drill 24 wells this year, starting in a month. The plan allows for 600 new wells over the next 30 years in the Baldwin Hills area.

Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, whose district includes the 84-year-old oil field that straddles La Cienega Boulevard, repeatedly defended the ordinance Tuesday. She warned that if the supervisors did not approve the ordinance -- which creates a Community Standards District for the oil field -- PXP could, by law, start drilling anyway. The Houston-based oil company had agreed to stop drilling last year pending an environmental review, but that agreement expired in June.

The $2-million environmental review, paid for by PXP and conducted by a county-appointed consultant, found that additional drilling would have a minimal effect on residents’ health. County public health department staff backed up that finding but urged further study, as have nearby residents.


Burke, however, argued that it was “very urgent” for the supervisors to act. And Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called postponing the added regulations “a riverboat gamble” because the oil company could go ahead without county oversight.

“If we do not put regulations in today, then they have the right to go to the state to apply for their drilling and start that drilling again,” Burke said.

She told the audience of several hundred who packed the meeting room that the Community Standards District being created “contains some of the most stringent regulations in the state.”

The four supervisors who voted Tuesday are expected to approve a final draft of the ordinance next week. Supervisor Don Knabe did not vote because he is out of the country until the end of the month.


But opponents -- many wearing homemade green fabric armbands -- contended that Burke, who is retiring from the board, had not done enough to ensure county oversight.

Baldwin Hills, Culver City and Windsor Hills residents living near the oil field complained of health problems, pollution, noise and damage to their homes from past drilling.

“You can’t ignore thousands of people that have signed petitions and experienced problems with their homes. What’s a few more weeks, a few more months, when you’re playing with the lives of people in this community?” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a community activist who says his Windsor Hills home was damaged by nearby oil drilling.

Among those faulting the plan Tuesday were Culver City Mayor D. Scott Malsin and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who lives in Baldwin Vista. In addition, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who attended the meeting, and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who sent a representative, each criticized the new drilling. The men are running against each other in the race to replace Burke.


About 250 PXP workers and contractors appeared in support of new drilling. A PXP spokesman said they attended the meeting on company time, with pay. Near meeting’s end, Burke asked all of those who supported the plan to stand, then paused, smiling as scores of PXP workers clapped and cheered. She paused before admonishing: “We do not have clapping.”

Burke later tried to reassure residents that she was acting in their best interest. “In the long run,” she said, “it’s going to be better for your community.”

Opponents said they plan to keep fighting but fear an uphill battle. Last year, the county received $7.49 million in tax revenue from the Inglewood Oil Field. This year PXP estimates that figure will rise to $9.3 million.

“PXP won this round,” Hutchinson said. “There will be a Round Two.”