By Natalie Ragus
Superior Court Judge James Chalfant recently ordered the Culver City and other parties involved in a collection of lawsuits against Los Angeles County and the field’s operators, the Plains Exploration and Production Company, to settle by June 29 or go to trial this summer. Under Chalfant’s order, the trial— which records indicate the court delayed on at least four occasions to give the parties more time to reach a settlement—won’t be delayed any longer.
The cases center on whether the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District, or the rules that govern field operations, violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not going far enough in protecting the environment and the health of residents in surrounding neighborhoods.
As the parties look forward to finally closing the books on one of the costliest and lengthy CEQA litigation processes in Culver City’s history, the field’s future remains uncertain. What happens next largely depends upon whether the parties settle or whomever Chalfant rules in favor of following the trial.
But regardless of whether the case reaches a resolution through a settlement or a trial, the parties involved in the suit will eventually have to heal the rifts that have come between them in order to move forward.
“We’ve been in litigation for almost three years,” Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Damon Nagami said. “We’re going to need to do some bridge building no matter what.”
One of the largest contiguous urban oil fields in the United States, the Inglewood Oil Fields spans approximately 750 to 1,000 acres. Primarily located in Baldwin Hills, the field is bisected by La Cienega Boulevard, north of Slauson Avenue. Its natural boundaries encompass the cities of Los Angeles and Culver City, as well as the West Los Angeles Community College campus and the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Surrounding communities include Culver Crest, Ladera Heights, Blair Hills and Windsor Hills.
The Standard Oil Company of California Los Angeles began drilling in the field in 1924 following Los Angeles’ “Black Gold” rush. The “Black Gold” rush caused Los Angeles’ population to double between 1890-1900, then triple between 1900-1910. Throughout its lifespan, more than 1,600 wells have been drilled within the Inglewood Oil Field’s boundaries.
Until recently, it seemed oil drilling had started to become a thing of the past in Baldwin Hills. Residents had even approved a bond to purchase various parcels of land encompassing the oil field to turn into a two-square mile park that would be linked by a bridge over La Cienega Boulevard.
However, with 3-D imaging, PXP discovered new oil and water injection sites, which would allow the company to collect oil in remote spots it did not previously have the technology to access. In 2003, PXP unearthed a 65 percent-untapped oil and gas reservoir underneath Culver City extending out to Venice Boulevard.
Two years later, the company applied for permission from Culver City to drill six more wells under Ballona Creek and a number of single family homes in the area. Drilling sky rocketed in 2005-06, the most active drilling years in the field’s history. Throughout this period, residents constantly complained that the increased drilling polluted the air, the relentless noise had become unbearable, and noxious fumes emanating from the fields sometimes interrupted their sleep.
Testifying at an October 2008 hearing regarding the adoption of the CSD’s, Culver Crest resident John Kuechle said, “PXP has done absolutely nothing to shield operations from nearby neighbors or otherwise protect the people.”
At the same hearing, retired California Technical Institute engineer Clint Simmons said the type of drilling operations PXP utilized in Inglewood to get to oil well below the ground was not appropriate for an urban environment.
“This type of operation PXP (is) doing is the kind that you do on the west Texan plains, not around homes, schools, and things of that nature.”
But not until two back-to-back incidents in 2006 did the community finally take action.
Noxious fumes from the Inglewood Oil Fields led to the evacuation of dozens of people, and affected more than 500 homes that January. Less than two months later, in February, a similar incident occurred.
The County immediately adopted a moratorium on new well drilling in response to the crisis. The county renewed the moratorium again, extending it through mid-2008.
However, state law prohibited the country from renewing the moratorium a third time.
Further complicating issues, the county did not have an ordinance in place to regulate field operations, meaning PXP could essentially resume drilling on the moratorium’s expiration date without any restrictions.
With the moratorium set to expire, PXP submitted documents intended to regulate oil drilling and production activities in Baldwin Hills called the Baldwin Community Standards District.
The county accepted this document, and allowed PXP to resume drilling operations.
But in November 2008, Culver City residents, Concerned Citizens of South Los Angeles, the Citizen’s Coalition for a Safe Community and the Community Health Councils—in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council—filed four class action lawsuits against PXP and Los Angeles County.
The court eventually consolidated the suits into one case. According to court documents, the suits allege the county violated the CEQA because by failing to conduct an adequate environmental impact report before adopting the CSD. The suit aims to force the county to develop more stringent drilling standards and halt the work on the planned 600 oil wells.
“The CSD missed its mark in manifold ways,” court documents read. “While the CSD may be an improvement over the county’s prior minimal regulation over the oil field, the EIR supporting it has major flaws that undermine its adequacy both as an informational document and as a means to development the implementation of feasible mitigation measures necessary to protect against further environmental harm.”
Furthermore, the county approved several last-minute amendments to the CSD authored by then-Supervisor Yvonne Burke—under whose district the oil field fell—without sending them to the Planning Commission for proper review, according to court documents.
Luis Perez, an environmental compliance coordinator with Marine Research
Specialists—the company contracted by PXP to conduct the EIR—defended his work on the document. He said the resulting CSD’s represent some of the most stringent regulatory standards on any oil field in the country, despite common belief.
“You tell people the answer, but the answer is not what they want to hear,” he said.
Either way, the focus has turned to bringing the case to a resolution after nearly three years; CEQA litigation typically takes six months to a year.
A trial in this case would not mean a trial in the traditional sense. The trial would involve Judge Chalfant reading over 16 volumes and more than 40,000 pages of court documents and issuing a ruling. Should he rule in favor of PXP and the county, the CSD’s will remain the same. If the judge rules in favor of the petitioners, the CSD’s will be amended.
If the parties settle, they will all agree upon an amended CSD, which would be updated as technology and mitigation measures improve. Representatives from all sides of the suit expressed a desire to settle as a means of achieving the optimum outcome and avoiding a lengthy appeals process.
“We would like to resolve the matter because we want to work together, to work with the county and PXP to ensure the protection of the community and the environment in and around the Baldwin Hills area continues going forward,” Nagami said. “Like all the parties, [the NRDC] would like to go see if there is a way to collaborate, to work together.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who took office when Burke termed out, has stated settlement is imminent as the parties have agreed to everything with the exception of one issue.
However, Nagami says that means nothing.
“As with every settlement, the parties haven’t agreed to anything until they’ve agreed to everything, so the only reliable status update is that discussions are ongoing,” he said.
Citing the ongoing litigation, PXP spokesman Scott Winters declined to comment on the case at all except to say PXP resumed drilling in June and “successfully completed the 2010 drilling plan in full compliance with the CSD.” The 2010 drilling plan jointly approved by the county and the Department of Gas and Geothermal Resources allowed for the installation of up to 42 wells, Winters said, but PXP only drilled 19.
The county and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources approved the 2011 annual drilling plan in December. The plan gives PXP the green light to drill up to 53 wells over the course of the year. So far, PXP has drilled 13 wells.
When asked how things would be different if he were in office in 2008, Ridley-Thomas did not hesitate to answer. “There never would have been a lawsuit,” he said.
That would have saved the county, which has its own in-house council, $143,000, and Culver City, which contracted outside legal services, $1.3 million, according to spokespersons from both camps.
For her part, Burke said she did all she could at the time she held office because the moratorium, which the county had renewed twice, could not be imposed again.
“Our leverage was the moratorium,” she said. PXP “had a right to resume drilling the day after the moratorium (ended)… The only thing we could do was to get (PXP) to agree to a CSD.”
Without a CSD in place, she explained, PXP would have no regulation on their drilling activity. Burke said she wanted to make it clear that she did not have any special dealings with PXP or its executives, and only looked out for the county’s best interests.
“I was never alone with them,” she said.
Putting past disputes aside, it seems Baldwin Hills and Culver City residents will finally see an end to the drama over the Inglewood Oil Field.