History of Racism Leaves Black Californians Most at Risk from Oil and Gas Drilling, New Research Shows

Even as fossil fuel extraction declined in the state, low-income, Black and Hispanic residents continued to face disproportionate risks from living near wells, and Black residents were exposed to the most intensive operations.

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Nearby homes are in danger of fire after an explosion on the Signal Hill oil field in Long Beach, California, June 1933. Credit: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nearby homes are in danger of fire after an explosion on the Signal Hill oil field in Long Beach, California, June 1933. Credit: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Decades before movie moguls produced celluloid heroes, oil claimed the spotlight in Los Angeles. California’s oil industry took off in the mid-1870s just 30 miles north of what would later become Hollywood Boulevard.

By the 1920s, the Los Angeles Basin had become the state’s leading oil-producing region as prospectors frenetically developed one oil-rich deposit after another. The rush to drill triggered explosions, fires and gushers that unleashed torrents of oil, rocks and debris in the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the country.

Kern County long ago eclipsed Los Angeles as the center of California oil production. Yet today, more than 60 percent of the million-plus Californians exposed to an actively producing oil or gas well live in Los Angeles County, a team of public health researchers reports in the peer-reviewed journal GeoHealth. And more than 90 percent of the people who live near California’s 110,000-plus new, active or retired wells are concentrated in just three counties: Los Angeles, Kern and Orange.

Most of the people who live near these wells, which emit a steady stream of carcinogens and other highly toxic chemicals, are Black, Latino or low-income, the team found. And the researchers discovered that Black people were far more likely to live near the highest-producing wells.

The study examined the demographic profiles of people who lived within 3,280 feet (1 kilometer, or more than half a mile) of oil and gas production. That’s farther than the health and safety oil drilling setback mandated by a recently enacted California law. The law banned new wells within the setback and tightened restrictions on existing operations. But state regulators stopped enforcing it after the oil industry spent millions to undo the protections by sponsoring a referendum that will go before voters in 2024.

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Other studies have shown that Black and Latino people are more likely to live near oil and gas operations.This one went a step further by investigating not just who is exposed to all the hazards of these operations, including emissions, odors, noise and light pollution, but also the intensity and persistence of that exposure. 

“We saw that Black and Latino and low-income people were more likely to be living near oil and gas wells persistently for years,” said David González, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research.

Some studies have found an association between higher well density and production and greater pollution and harm, he said. “And we found that the widest disparities were for Black people living in neighborhoods with the most intensive production.”

While Black people make up just 5.5 percent of California’s population, González found, they account for roughly 12 percent of the Angelenos who live near the heaviest oil and gas production.

Roots of Environmental Racism

This study’s sobering findings reflect a long history of discriminatory practices. Wells and their hazards did not proliferate randomly in the City of Angels during the 1920s oil boom, when the police chief and sheriff belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and property values were inextricably tied to race.

A combination of “regulation, discrimination, structural inequality and violence” corralled nonwhite populations into L.A.’s worst housing, the urban geographer Andrea Gibbons wrote in her 2018 book “City of Segregation.’’ Whites moved to the suburban edges, free to settle wherever they could afford to buy a home, while Black Angelenos became increasingly isolated in the city.

Expanding Drilling Risks

Racist “redlining” policies—in which early federal home loan agencies and banks marked areas with higher proportions of Black and other nonwhite residents in red to indicate high risk—relegated low-income residents and people of color to marginalized, resource-starved neighborhoods.

Federal law banned redlining decades ago, yet communities of color continue to suffer the consequences. In a study published last year, González found that racially discriminatory housing and lending policies over the past century led to an outsize number and density of oil and gas wells in marginalized neighborhoods with predominantly nonwhite or foreign-born residents in Los Angeles and other oil-producing cities across the country.

Los Angeles is among the top 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in the nation, UC Berkeley researchers reported in 2021. That may help explain one of González’s most troubling findings: While California oil and gas production declined over the past 15 years, it did so at a much slower rate near communities of color, and Black people consistently lived alongside the highest-producing wells, with all the noise, odors, stress and chemical hazards that come with them.

Even González was surprised at how stark the differences were for Los Angeles’ Black residents.

Cassandra Clark, an environmental epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Cancer Center who was not involved in the research, described it as “a really thoughtfully designed study” that scrutinized indicators of vulnerability in far more detail than in the past, documenting inequality on a structural scale. “It’s pretty striking,” she said.

While oil and gas wells are more likely to operate in lower-income communities, Clark said, studies show that operations in wealthier communities are more likely to spur complaints and investigations.

Shining a Light on Society’s Margins

Beyond the racial and income disparities, González and his colleagues showed that socially and economically marginalized people—people who don’t vote, own their home or speak English—are more likely to live near oil and gas operations. Many of those residents are likely to speak Spanish, the second most common language in California.

“We went as far back as we could with the data we had available to us,” González said. “And we see pretty persistently over the course of really the last 20 years, that there’s a higher proportion of people of color and low-income people and linguistically isolated people living in areas of oil and gas development.”

Oil and gas operations pose serious risks to surrounding communities by releasing toxic gases known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, along with a noxious brew of other air contaminants and methane, a potent climate pollutant. Wells, storage tanks and other equipment release a mix of particularly hazardous petroleum-based gases known as BTEX, for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene is a known carcinogen and has been linked to increased risk of leukemia and other blood cell cancers.

Energy companies rely on hundreds of chemicals to extract fossil fuels and maintain well sites, including many that disrupt hormones, cause reproductive and developmental harm and lead to cancer. These chemicals can enter groundwater and pose risks to drinking water supplies when companies spill or improperly dispose of wastewater laced with chemical additives and harmful substances like arsenic and radioactive material that return to the surface with extracted fuels.

Researchers have now tied these hazardous operations and their emissions to a growing list of health problems. 

People living near wells suffer higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments like wheezing, along with nosebleeds, headaches, fatigue, sore throats and watery eyes. Chronic exposure to a drilling site is as harmful to lungs as breathing freeway exhaust or secondhand smoke, researchers found in a recent study of a densely populated Black and Latino neighborhood near a Los Angeles oilfield. Studies have also linked living near wells to childhood cancer, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, preterm births and early death.

In a study on childhood leukemia in Pennsylvania published last year by Clark, the Yale postdoctoral fellow, children who were born or grew up within two kilometers of an unconventional oil and gas well (used for fracking) were up to three times more likely to develop acute lymphoblastic leukemia than children who didn’t. Two kilometers is more than 6,500 feet—twice the distance of California’s stalled buffer-zone law.

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Community members are well aware of the risks associated with oil and gas operations, González said. “But now, scientifically, we’re getting a much better sense of the specific ways in which neighborhood oil and gas production is harmful to health.”

Kyle Ferrar, Western program coordinator for the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, has documented toxic emissions from drilling sites for years, responding to community members’ complaints. Ferrar uses high-tech imaging equipment that videotapes gases the naked eye can’t see. 

Last summer, he documented uncontrolled emissions from wells and equipment around homes, schools and other neighborhood sites in Los Angeles and two other oil-producing regions. He filed more than 40 complaints with the air district that regulates Los Angeles. 

As gentrification sharpens divisions along racial lines, it also sharpens divisions around wealth, which limits a person’s access to certain neighborhoods, Ferrar said. “And in Los Angeles, exposure to oil and gas is really determined by what neighborhood you live in.”

The glaring new evidence that people of color are disproportionately exposed to these harmful industrial operations may help explain the prevalence of ethnic and racial health disparities. 

Black Californians have the shortest life expectancy and experience the highest death rates from breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate cancer among all racial and ethnic groups in the state, a recent study from the California Health Care Foundation found. They also have the highest rates of prenatal and postpartum depressive symptoms, preterm births, low-birthweight births, infant mortality and maternal mortality. 

Overall, a larger proportion of white people in California reported being in excellent or very good health, the study found, in contrast to Black and Latino residents, who were most likely to report being in fair or poor health.

Still Waiting for Protections 

That’s a major reason why public health and environmental justice advocates rejoiced when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the landmark health and safety setback law last September. But the oil industry wasted no time filing the referendum to overturn the law and dispatching canvassers who told voters that signing the petition to get it on the ballot would stop neighborhood drilling when, in fact, it would do the opposite.

Newsom vowed in February to hold “Big Oil’’ accountable for trying to “squeeze out profits as they pollute our communities.” Environmental justice advocates took the move as a sign that the governor would stop issuing permits within the 3,200-foot buffer zone, to protect frontline communities.

Instead, he called for a price-gouging bill to keep oil companies from charging record gas prices. The California Legislature approved Newsom’s push to increase transparency in gas pricing last Monday, and the governor signed it into law the next day. ”We proved we could actually beat Big Oil,” the governor said at the signing ceremony.

Community advocates applaud Newsom for his efforts to protect consumers’ wallets at the pump, said Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator for Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, or VISION. “But we still ask the same question we’ve had since the beginning of Newsom’s first term. When will you protect our health, too?”

California’s setback rule prohibits operators from reworking and repairing wells in addition to banning new wells within the safety zone. But oil and gas regulators have authorized more than 600 permits to redrill since the first of the year, Naseck said. More than two-thirds of the permits are within the buffer zone that was supposed to go into effect this year, he said, adding, ”Climate leaders don’t do that.”

The striking increase in permits to rework and repair wells within the health safety zone puts neighborhoods, especially Latino, Black and low-income communities, “at elevated risk of exposure to all the pollutants we see released from leaking wells,” said Ferrar of FracTracker.

Unwilling to risk waiting for the state to enforce its own laws, some local governments have enacted their own restrictions against polluting oil operations. 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance in January to ban new oil and gas wells and phase out existing operations throughout most of the county, which has the largest urban oilfield in the nation. A month earlier, the city of Los Angeles passed a similar measure.

Local community groups organized for years to get these protections on the books. Their efforts echo early campaigns by residents frustrated by unchecked development during the 1920s oil boom, when wells routinely shot streams of oil into the sky and a leaking pipeline in Signal Hill, at the county’s southern edge, ignited a conflagration that engulfed a city block before firefighters could extinguish it.

Los Angeles’ long history of oil production has left aging wells and equipment littering the landscape. “Our work looking for leaks at existing oil and gas infrastructure has shown us that the age of these facilities is a good indicator of whether or not they’re leaking and how many leaks occur,” Ferrar said.

A lot of the aging oil and gas infrastructure is concentrated in Signal Hill and in the Wilmington Oilfield, Ferrar said, while the newer oilfields are mainly out in the suburbs. “These urban, older oilfields are much more likely to be sources of uncontrolled emissions and leaks,” he said. “And Black and Latino and renting communities are located closest to the oldest and most decrepit oil and gas fields in Los Angeles.”

Many of these wells have been abandoned by operators because they’re no longer profitable, Ferrar said. 

González estimated that 1 in 5 Californians, or 9 million people, live within a half-mile of abandoned or retired wells. “As we transition away from primary fossil fuel production, we need to know where these abandoned wells are, especially if they’re leaking methane or BTEX,” he said.

The new study makes a vital contribution to a growing body of evidence that communities on society’s margins have been shouldering the burden of environmental pollution for decades, along with the health consequences, Clark notes. “And the way the scientific community can help is by doing studies like this, documenting it.”

Then, maybe, Clark said, policymakers and political leaders will finally take action to reverse a century of injustice.

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