PXP regulated in LA

New deal struck on oil drilling in Baldwin Hills

By LEILONI DE GRUY, Staff Writer

BALDWIN HILLS — A contentious battle over oil drilling in this section of South Los Angeles has been settled, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas announced Tuesday.

The settlement will result in a reduction in the number of oil wells in the area, tighten restriction on new wells and a number of measures that will protect air quality, reduce noise and beautify the surrounding landscape.

Approved July 5 by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the elements of the settlement will go into effect immediately, said county officials.

“The settlement has been approved by all of the respective parties, including by the Board of Supervisors [Tuesday], and is now in the process of being circulated amongst the attorneys for final signature,” said Karly Katona, deputy to Ridley-Thomas. “The terms and conditions — most importantly the 15 mitigations created through the settlement — have been finalized. The agreement will technically go into effect once all signatures have been recorded, which we anticipate will happen over the next few days.”

Without signatures to finalize the agreement, resident John Kuechle was hesitant to discuss the development, but said he was concerned that the terms and conditions of the settlement could change before it is officially ratified.

“I will be happy to talk about it when it’s signed,” Kuechle said. “I feel very uncomfortable commenting on it until then.”

However, Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils, and Damon Nagami, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the likelihood of significant changes is slim.

“It’s highly unlikely that the settlement will change,” Nagami said. “The agreement is pretty much in final form. We just have to get the signatures. I think that all of the attorneys and parties involved put a tremendous amount of time and effort into negotiating the settlement. At this point, we are all looking forward to completing the settlement and finalizing it so that we can move forward.”

Taking up over 1,100 acres of land, the Inglewood Oil Field is surrounded by Culver City, Baldwin Hills, View Park, Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights.

In 2008, after residents raised concerns about the impact the field has had on their health and property values, four lawsuits — filed by the city of Culver City, Concerned Citizens of South Los Angeles, the Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community and Community Health Councils, Inc. — challenged the county environmental regulations, also known as the Community Standards District (CSD), that govern the oil field and its operator, Plains Exploration and Production Co.

“It’s been a hard battle,” Galloway-Gilliam said. “While this hasn’t resulted in an amendment, we were hoping for an amendment to the CSD, I think that we have made some progress in improving the protections for the community. We are optimistic.”

Two years ago, Ridley-Thomas sought help from then-Attorney General Jerry Brown to assist in the mediation process.  As a result, Brown assigned two attorneys to work with Ridley-Thomas’ office to find a middle ground that all parties could live with. When Kamala Harris was sworn in as attorney general last year, she picked up where Brown left off.

According to Ridley-Thomas, the “Attorney’s General’s experts marked a turning point. They brought cool heads to a heated environment, and in doing so guided us all to a solution that gives all sides more than we would have gotten from a court battle.”

Combined with the existing provisions of the CSD, the settlement calls for 15 additional measures that will safeguard the health, safety and security of the surrounding community.

The new agreement will reduce the number of wells that PXP can drill over the life of the CSD — until 2028 — from 600 to 500. It will also create incentives for the abandonment of wells close to Sensitive Developed Areas (SDA) and concentrate drilling in the center of the oil field; require additional air quality monitoring along the perimeter of the oil field; require reduction of nighttime noise levels from five decibels to three decibels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.; mandate studies to assess feasibility of slant drilling away from sensitive developed areas; enhance ongoing health assessments with an environmental justice focus; require more effective landscaping; mandate the completion of a fracking study; decrease the number of drill rigs that can be used at one time from three to two; require clean technology, such as natural gas-powered drill rigs; initiate an electrical distribution study to reduce the blight of utility lines; strengthen standards related to well abandonment; restrict use of a gas plant back-up flare; mandate ongoing clean-up; and open the CSD up for review when oil production levels drop significantly.

While the current CSD allows PXP to drill up to 45 new wells every year, the new settlement will initially cut the annual total to 30 new wells. PXP will be permitted to drill up to 45 wells per year, only if it abandons wells within 800 feet of sensitive areas. Two new drilling permits will be approved for each well abandoned.

When PXP has drilled 50 wells — or after 24 months — the director of planning has the option to raise the limit to 35 new wells per year if it is determined that the CSD has effectively protected the health, safety and general welfare of the public. At that time, PXP can also drill up to a total of 53 new wells every year if it abandons wells in developed areas.

If production drops to 630 barrels a day, the county reserves the right to review the CSD to consider whether modifications or closure of the oil field is necessary.

Additional air quality monitoring will be completed within the next 12-24 months, and will be funded by the county at a cost of $250,000. An initial community health assessment will be completed by June 2012. Phase one includes a comprehensive analysis of mortality, cancer and birth defect rates for the census tracts surrounding the oil field. Phase two is ongoing and includes a qualitative health survey of 1,000 community residents. The Department of Public Health will then conduct additional assessments every five to seven years.

“This settlement is the victory area residents and I have sought after working together for nearly five years,” said a statement by Ridley-Thomas. “Those who live near the oil field will see fewer wells, hear less noise from drilling and have in place stronger air quality protections than exist today. I’m confident this set of reforms is far more thorough than what could have been achieved through a contentious and protracted court battle.”

Nagami agreed: “Generally speaking, this is a hard-fought victory for the residents who have been waiting for over five years to protect themselves from the effects of oil drilling,” he said. “I think this was a good outcome and it sets the stage for moving forward to work with all of the stakeholders in implementing the agreement. It is a compromise. It’s not perfect and nobody got everything they wanted, but I do think it does provide greater protections than they had previously and the settlement gives the community much more than they could have gotten than having the parties go to trial.”

Now it is about using all of the tools in the agreement and CSD to make sure that PXP abides by the terms and conditions of the documents, Galloway-Gilliam said. Residents, she added, need to be aware of the details and hold PXP, as well as county officials, accountable.

As for air quality monitoring and health assessments, “we have to let that play out,” Galloway-Gilliam added. “If in fact we find that the levels are higher than what we had expected, or if there are problems in the field, we need to use that data and those results to find ways of improving and adding to the county ordinance. It’s hard to say that what we have now is the best and if its going to work. We have to let the data come forward, then evaluate its effectiveness.”

Caption: After years of battling Inglewood Oil Field operator, Plains Exploration and Production Co., residents, who raised concerns about their health, can breathe somewhat easier. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas announced a settlement Tuesday, he said, would more adequately address public safety. (Photo by Gary McCarthy)