Researchers have discovered up to 40 separate leaks, many in residential and commercial areas, at oil and gas installations across Los Angeles County. If confirmed by regulators, they pose a potential hazard both to human health and to the environment, including for their climate warming potential, according to experts.
The organization that shot the videos, FracTracker Alliance, submitted complaints this week to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) for each suspected leak, which span across the region from El Segundo to East Los Angeles, Downtown to the South Bay. The AQMD said it is sending a team of inspectors to investigate each complaint.
Video of at least one leak, at a petroleum storage tank close to homes in Signal Hill, has already resulted in a violation notice for Cree Oil LLC. A representative for the company declined to comment when reached by phone.
One expert on oil and gas equipment emissions who reviewed the footage said it was “shocking.”
“You see that kind of thing in West Texas and rural Appalachia, but it’s unusual to see it in such a dense urban area,” said Amy Townsend-Small, a professor of environmental science at the University of Cincinnati.
In infrared video taken by FracTracker and shared with Capital & Main, leaking hydrocarbon gasses, including natural gas (primarily methane) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are normally invisible, are rendered in black and white and bright colors. They can be seen wafting from various types of oil and gas infrastructure. FracTracker’s video was shot with the same type of cameras used by regulators and companies, as well as advocates, to accurately detect emissions.
High concentrations of methane can induce headaches and dizziness, and they are potentially explosive, presenting a fire risk for nearby homes and communities. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas with vastly more warming potential than carbon dioxide.
State regulations prohibit leaks from most equipment involved with oil and gas production except under limited circumstances. In addition, emissions are not permitted at all from idle wells, which are unplugged wells that are no longer operating. Yet at least 19 sites with idle wells were filmed leaking natural gas.
A spokesperson for the California Energy and Geologic Management Division (CalGEM), which regulates both active and idle wells, said the agency hadn’t received video of the leaking wells in L.A. but would “welcome it for review.”
CalGEM “requires every operator to provide a management plan for its idle wells and prevent methane emissions on both active and idle wells. Operators of leaking wells face civil penalties. Additionally, CalGEM has the authority to order wells to be plugged if operators fail to submit idle-well management plans or fail to pay idle-well fees” and can plug wells itself, CalGEM’s Jacob Roper wrote in an email.
Kyle Ferrar, the Western program coordinator for FracTracker, said he chose which sites to shoot based on ease of access and the presence of idle wells. There are thousands more active and idle wells in the city and county, as well as other parts of the state, signaling a potentially widespread problem, Ferrar said. He also observed leaks at sites in Kern and Ventura counties.
“This absolutely indicates a much more systemic issue of upstream methane and [VOC] leakage,” Ferrar wrote in an email to Capital & Main.
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The AQMD says there are more than 300 oil and gas facilities under its jurisdiction and that regulators have a goal to “inspect them all at least once every two years.”
Methane emissions usually accompany leaks of harmful agents such as VOCs including benzene, xylene and toluene, according to David J.X. González, an epidemiologist and environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. His research linked preterm birth risk with oil and gas infrastructure within a mile. But there are also hazards for people living farther away, because VOCs combine with another industrial pollutant, nitrogen oxide, in sunlight to form ozone.
“We’re concerned for people living immediately adjacent, and because of the potential for secondary production of pollutants, we are also concerned about folks that live farther away,” González told Capital & Main after reviewing the video.
It shows uncontrolled emissions coming from a crude petroleum holding tank operated by Cree Oil near homes in Signal Hill. The leak was so egregious, Ferrar told Capital & Main, that he immediately called the AQMD to report. Regulators subsequently issued a notice of violation and are investigating the equipment.
“It looks like it’s going right into people’s windows,” said Townsend-Small after reviewing the video. “That kind of exposure is not good.”
Tanks are often connected to vapor combustors, which are designed to turn methane and VOC emissions into far less toxic carbon dioxide. Yet in several instances, FracTracker filmed combustors it said were working poorly.
Capital & Main reviewed video of hydrocarbon emissions from a combustor in Wilmington, next to a children’s baseball field. The video shows plumes billowing toward nearby houses and apartment buildings. The operator, Warren E&P, was cited in May for “failure to maintain a fixed roof tank in vapor tight condition,” according to AQMD records.
Ashley Hernandez, who lives in a house 400 feet from the Wilmington installation, says respiratory illnesses and cancers are common among people in her neighborhood, which she suspects are caused by the oil site and other compounding pollution sources nearby, such as heavy truck tailpipe emissions.
“Nobody should have to deal with these things,” said Hernandez, who has been involved as an environmental justice advocate for Communities for a Better Environment since 2010. “It shouldn’t be allowed. We are a sacrifice zone.”
FracTracker’s findings come as California Gov. Gavin Newsom announces several initiatives to address the hazards of neighborhood drilling and the warming effects of uncontrolled methane emissions from oil and gas.
The administration is proposing that CalGEM form a joint office with the California Air Resources Board to monitor methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, and is requesting $200 million for a network of methane detection satellites and efforts to plug inactive and abandoned wells that are leaking methane.
Additionally, the office of Gov. Newsom confirmed to Capital & Main that Newsom is working with the Legislature to codify a 3,200 foot “setback” between new oil and gas wells and sensitive sites such as homes and schools, citing a national panel of scientific experts. The rule would also include “strict pollution controls” for the more than 2 million homes in California near existing wells, though an earlier draft of the rule left room for operators to restart old wells in that zone.
González, the epidemiologist, said the setback rule is a good first step, but the damage done by decades of residential oil and gas drilling is still being uncovered.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that these industrial activities were ever benign,” he said.
Copyright 2022 Capital & Main.
An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that the AQMD had ordered Cree Oil to suspend operations at a facility in Signal Hill.
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