warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news


Gracie Zheng |
May 5, 2013 | 11:00 p.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

This story is an ongoing collaboration between Neon Tommy and L.A. Currents

By now we have all seen or at least heard of the documentary Gasland. You know, the one where the guy

Inglewood oil field. (Photo by Gracie Zheng)
Inglewood oil field. (Photo by Gracie Zheng)
with the banjo literally lights people’s tap water on fire in parts of the country where few of us have ever been. The film won all types of awards and was nominated for an Oscar in 2011 mainly because it was very effective in scaring the shit out of us.

The film brought hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” into our vernacular. To frack is to blast a high-pressured mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas trapped in shale deposits. It has become the environmental boogeyman for the millenial generation, pitting environmentalists and celebrity activists against oil and gas companies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the issue of fracking legs when he placed a moratorium on the practice in 2010 and then reversed that position, infuriating environmentalists.

How is it that California — the fourth largest oil-producing state in the country — and Los Angeles — home to the largest urban oil field in the country — have been spared? Turns out we haven’t, and it is quite possible that fracking is happening a few miles from where you sit.

Baldwin Hills is home to the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country. Ten percent of that oil field extends into the city limits of Culver City. In early April, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the commission tasked with regulating air quality in Southern California, unanimously voted to adopt a new set of rules that apply to an assortment of oil drilling activities, including fracking. For those fearful of what fracking might do to the environment or to our drinking water, this was a small but encouraging first step.

Even though California is home to a 1,750-square-mile-swath of underground shale rock, which the U.S. Department of Energy estimates could contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil, state legislators have yet to create clear regulations regarding fracking. The state agency known as the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources says that regulations are still in the “discussion draft” stage, and there are at least eight different bills currently being considered, which has created a huge amount of confusion.  

In January 2006, uncontrolled toxic gas leaks from the Inglewood Oil Field affected more than 1,000 households and forced dozens of residents to evacuate. A month later, a similar incident occurred. Since then, Community Health Councils, a non-profit health advocacy organization, has been trying to monitor drilling activities at the field.

“If [the companies] are fracking right now, [they] have denied it,” said Mark Glassock, who works as a community liaison for CHC.

It is nearly impossible to accurately track numbers and locations of wells that have been fracked in California or L.A. “It is a little difficult to tell because with fracking you can go in and you get out pretty quickly, and it lasts a matter of hours,” said Glassock. “So when we say, are they fracking right now? We do not know. Have they done it in the past? Absolutely.”

According to Frac Focus, a national hydraulic fracturing data base where oil and gas companies voluntarily disclose their fracking activities, at least 600 oil wells were fracked in the state in 2012. From 2011 to 2012, two wells were fracked by Plains Exploration & Production Company, the Texas-based oil and gas company that operates Inglewood Oil Field. According to a 2011 L.A. Times article, Culver City environmentalists and community groups settled a suit against PXP and Los Angeles County that was filed following the 2006 release of noxious gas fumes at the site. PXP said it would reduce the number of new wells in the oil field from 600 to 500 through 2028. 

The new rules require oil and gas companies in Southern California to report the chemicals they are using and the location of wells prior to drilling. The rules also require oil and gas companies to report sources of emissions. The air quality agency will post the information to the public, which will make it the first time a government agency will release real-time data on fracking activities. Last month, the Culver City Council stepped into the fray and released its own hydraulic fracking ordinance.

Steve Rusch is vice president of Environmental, Health & Safety, and Government Affairs at PXP and is chairman of California Independent Petroleum Association, a non-profit trade group. “As much as I would like to debate the need for a rule on hydraulic fracturing, and [to debate] a lot of misinformation out there throughout the country on hydraulic fracturing, on behalf of CIPA and also PXP, with the rule focusing on hydraulic fracturing, it (the rules) would be acceptable,” he said.

Dr. Tom Williams, a retired oil-field expert, called the new rules a “good start” but was concerned about the short notice required. “A 24-hour notice to take action or even to be a witness to it, is too short,” he said. Williams isn’t holding his breath on the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources and predicted that it would take at least two years for the state legislators to pass fracking rules.

Williams’ main worry is that Californians do not have access to enough information on the potential dangers of fracking. He likens the current fracking debate to the early debate about the dangers of tobacco, when people suspected smoking was harmful but lacked the scientific evidence to back it up. “Without information, we can’t do anything,” he said. 

Reach Senior Staff Reporter Gracie Zheng here; Follow her on Twitter



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.