Activist Report on Oil Production in Los Angeles: Myth vs. Fact

The Liberty Hill Foundation (The Foundation) recently issued a report entitled “Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles,” which paints a bleak — and wholly inaccurate — picture of what continued oil development means for Los Angeles. Luckily for Angelenos, each of the report’s claims have been repeatedly discredited by scientific studies.

The fact that the Foundation would intentionally circulate misinformation does not come as a surprise, unfortunately. The Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides funding to a large number of groups working under the social justice umbrella, many of which, no doubt, do excellent work.  Unfortunately, on issues related to energy production, the Foundation has aligned itself with Food and Water Watch (FWW), a fringe activist group that has a long history of ignoring science in favor of an ideological agenda to shut down all oil and gas development.

For example, though it claims to care about climate change, FWW is leading a nonsensical campaign against hydraulic fracturing (fracking), despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently called fracking “an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” Similarly bizarre FWW claims have already been debunked by EID here and here.

The Foundation’s report simply fails to address the large the body of scientific literature that contradicts its claims or to recognize the extensive regulatory framework within which oil development in Los Angeles takes place.

Myth: Oil Production is Destroying Local Air Quality.

The Liberty Hill report claims:

“Oil drilling, extraction, and development is associated with a variety of health-damaging air pollutants (Helmig et al. 2014). Air pollution is linked to many adverse health outcomes such as asthma, exacerbated heart disease, and low birth weight (Peden 2002; Wilhelm and Ritz 2005).”

Fact: Production Activities Have No Substantial Impact on Air Quality in the Los Angeles Region.

There have been several studies that directly examine the relationship between oil production and air pollution in the Los Angeles region.  These studies have decisively concluded that production activities present no real threat to air quality.

A July 2015 study conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) found that Los Angeles and Los Angeles County oil exploration and production activity accounts for less than one percent of criteria air pollutants and toxic contaminants in the area, stating:

“In the South Coast air district (including all of Orange County, the non-desert regions of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, and Riverside County), upstream oil and gas sources represent small proportions (<1%) of criteria air pollutant and toxic air contaminant emissions due to large quantities of emissions from other sources in a highly urbanized area.”

Singling-out energy development – which is strictly regulated by, among others, the SCAQMD – as a significant source of air pollutants is to ignore 99+ percent of pollutants and contaminants from other sources, but it makes for a great anti-industry talking point.

Myth: Oil Production is Making Los Angeles’ Ground-Level Ozone and Smog Worse.

Similarly, the Foundation’s “Drilling Down” report attempts to link Los Angeles’ persistent problem with smog and ground-level ozone to emissions related to local oil production. The report states:

“The oil industry is the largest industrial source of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, a group of chemicals that contribute to smog and ground level ozone (EPA 2014), which make up the primary components of Los Angeles smog… Los Angeles already has the worse ozone pollution in the United States (American Lung Association 2014).”

Fact: Los Angeles’ Ground Level Ozone Levels Are Decreasing.

The truth is that oil production facilities in the L.A. area are well-within regional air quality standards, and overall, ground-level ozone has decreased in recent years. Below is a graph depicting the data from an EPA air monitoring station in Los Angeles:

LA Ozone Graph

The western United States does, unfortunately, suffer from higher levels of ground level ozone than other regions, which has prompted numerous studies to specifically examine this phenomenon. One such study from earlier this year was conducted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and concluded that despite improvements in domestic emissions, the western United States is still battling air pollution migrating over the Pacific from China. The study states:

The western United States reduced its production of ozone-forming pollutants by a whopping 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, but ozone in the atmosphere above the region did not drop as expected in response.  The reason: A combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.” (Emphasis added)

Smog and ground level ozone are persistent problems in Los Angeles, but blaming oil-related emissions, which, again, are tightly regulated and within regional air quality standards, is not going to get us any closer to further reducing their impacts.

Myth: “Unconventional” Oil Production/Fracking Threatens Los Angeles Water Supplies

The Foundation’s report also tries to play on people’s fears tha “unconventional” oil production is – among other false claims — polluting local water supplies. This is a fabrication that is frequently repeated by anti-industry groups like FWW, even in the face of numerous studies that show this claim to be unfounded. The Foundation’s report states:

“There is a growing literature linking unconventional oil and gas drilling with increased air pollution, water contamination, noise pollution, and stress (e.g., Adgate, Goldstein, and McKenzie 2014; Helmig; Shonkoff, Hays, and Finkel 2014).” (Emphasis added)

The report cites the following study involving fracking to bolster its claim:

“One study of wells stimulated through hydraulic fracturing in Colorado identified 944 products used in natural gas drilling and could find toxicity data for only 353 of these….  This study points to the problem of lack of disclosure of chemicals uses in drilling.  It also points to the need for air and water monitoring and coordinated human and environmental health studies (Colborn, Kwiatkowski, Schultz, and Bachran 2011).”

Fact: There is No Fracking or Unconventional Oil Production Operations in the City of Los Angeles.

Discussions about unconventional operations and hydraulic fracturing are simply off-topic when applied to Los Angeles. Hydraulic fracturing is not used as a completion technique at any of the urban drill sites in the City.  All of the facilities recover oil through traditional water flood operations. The report’s attempt to shoehorn fracking and unconventional production into its report proves that it is not engaged in an honest attempt to inform the public.

Fact: Fracking is a Routine, Safe and Proven Process.

Even if fracking did occur, however, there is no shortage of scientific literature on the fundamental safety of the practice which is after all, a routine technique used millions of times elsewhere in the country (and in California) since Harry Truman was President.

To name a few recent studies: a 2015 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Study, a 2012 Colorado Department of Public Health Study, a 2011 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Health Report, a 2013 Public Health England Study, a 2013 West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Study, as well as many more.

Closer to home, a comprehensive study of the Inglewood Oil Field near Baldwin Hills and Culver City was conducted in 2012.  This study examined the impacts of fracking in the largest urban oil field in the United States across a range of categories.

On groundwater quality:

“Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing…”

On methane emissions:

“Methane analyzed in soil gas and groundwater, as well as carbon and hydrogen isotopic rations in methane, at the Inglewood Oil Field did not show levels of concern.  There was no indication of impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing or high-rate gravel packing.”

On induced earthquakes:

“Before-during-and-after measurements of vibration and seismicity, including analysis of data from the permanently installed California Institute of Technology accelerometer at the Baldwin Hills, indicates that the high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packs had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes).”

On air emissions:

“Emissions associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing were within standards set by the regional air quality regulations of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.”

And, contrary to the Foundation’s report, on community health:

“The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health conducted a community health assessment that found no statistical difference of the health of the local community compared to Los Angeles County as a whole. Conventional hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packs operations took place at the oil field, within the period addressed by the health assessment. Given the fact that public health trends in the area surrounding the field were consistent with public health trends throughout the L.A. Basin it is reasonable to conclude that the conduct of hydraulic fracturing during the analyzed period did not contribute or create abnormal health risks”

On the groundwater issue specifically, the Foundation also fails to note a series of more recent studies which have confirmed that fracking does not contaminate water. One such report was released by the EPA at the end of its five-year study on the topic, it concluded:

“Hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

This finding was no aberration. In fact, studies conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, U.S. Geological Survey, Syracuse University, National Ground Water Association, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S. Department of Energy and the Groundwater Protection Council, have all concluded that fracking does not contaminate groundwater resources.

Anti-fracking activists have drummed up so much unsubstantiated fear about groundwater contamination that top Obama Administration officials have taken the time, on several occasions, to set the record straight.  Among them is the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, who stated:

“To my knowledge, I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.”

And Lisa Jackson, the former Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

“In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”

Somehow, none of these many studies or statements from public officials made it into the Foundation’s report. However, to reiterate: fracking does not occur in the City of Los Angeles so the Foundation’s discussion of it is irrelevant and not worthy of a serious “report” on potential community impacts.

Myth: Fracking Uses Unknown Chemicals.

As mentioned to in the above quote about Colorado’s wells, this report also asserts that fracking uses dangerous and sometimes unknown chemicals, stating:

“[T]he full extent of the use of these chemicals is unknown, since companies can withhold chemical identities and mixtures under “trade secret” protections (Air Quality Management District 2013).”

Fact: Oil Companies Disclose the Chemicals They Use in California.

It is mandatory in both California (and in other states like Colorado) for oil companies to disclose the chemicals that are used in the fracking process.

In fact, activist groups know this and been very vocal about mandatory disclosure in California, for example the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has stated:

“California’s fracking disclosure law is the most comprehensive in the nation.  The data in the reports submitted to the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency provide the most detailed accounting available on the chemical makeup of fracking fluids.”

As stated repeatedly throughout this article, fracking is not used in the City of Los Angeles, but it is used elsewhere in the state – primarily in Kern County – and it is a regulated and transparent process.

Myth: California’s Oil Production is Under-Regulated.

The Foundation’s report claims that the regulatory framework for oil production in California is rigid, unresponsive to resident’s complaints, and outdated, stating:

“From the start, the laws and regulatory oversight processes established to address oil and gas activity were not envisioned to protect residents or the environment, as Los Angeles became more dense, the city failed to address gaps in the existing regulatory system, and it failed to create a framework for reviewing earlier decisions to allow or place conditions on oil exploration activities; the systems for collection and making publicly accessible existing information about oil extraction activities are inadequate because the most critical information is incomplete and reporting is not timely.”

The report’s authors call for the prohibition of oil drilling and production within “buffer zones” or, alternatively, moratoriums, interim control ordinances, and bans on hydraulic fracturing or other well stimulation techniques.  Essentially, they want to make it impossible for oil and gas companies – part of the economic backbone of Los Angeles for more than 100 years — to produce oil in the City.

As well, a post facto buffer zone would disadvantage thousands of royalty owners who owned the mineral interests below their properties at the time the production facilities were constructed. These demands also ignore the strict regulatory requirements of the SCAQMD.

Fact: California’s Regulatory Environment is the Strictest in the Nation.

Not only is California currently home to the nation’s most stringent regulations for oil production but it is also continuously adapting.

The independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2012 report outlining the extent of federal regulation of oil production – both conventional and unconventional. From that report:

“As with conventional oil and gas development, requirements from eight federal environmental and public health laws apply to unconventional oil and gas development. For example, the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates discharges of pollutants into surface waters. Among other things, CWA requires oil and gas well site operators to obtain permits for discharges of produced water – which includes fluids used for hydraulic fracturing, as well as water that occurs naturally in oil-or gas-bearing formations – to surface waters. In addition, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) governs the management and disposal of hazardous wastes, among other things.”

The industry is governed by federal environmental and public health laws including:

  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) (for disposal wells)
  • Clean Water Act (CWA)
  • Clean Air Act (CAA)
  • Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)

In addition to these federal regulations, of course, operators also have to comply with a tapestry of state and local laws. In California, the industry’s primary regulator is the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

This is only the beginning. In addition to DOGGR, the industry complies with regulation from Federal entities like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupations Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as regional regulators like the SCAQMD and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), in addition to regulations by the City of Los Angeles, the Fire Department and the like.  In fact, Los Angeles’ oil and gas industry is under the jurisdiction of 18 different regulatory entities.


Environmentally protective regulations and an engaged activist community are good things. The industry must use best practices and be held accountable to meet the highest standards of performance.  However, it is troubling that Liberty Hill Foundation would find itself under the sway of an extreme activist organization which, it has been proven time and again, will resort to spreading misinformation and blatant falsehoods – cynically counting on the possibility that its audience will not independently look at the facts – in an attempt to shut down one of the Southland’s most venerable industries.

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