Environmental Legacy of Oil and Gas Production and Refining in LA County

By Lauren Otaguro


When it comes to the extraction of oil, one of the hottest topics now is hydraulic fracking. This is the process of pumping millions of liters of water, mixed with sand and a recipe of unregulated chemicals kept secret by oil companies, under high pressure into shale rock many kilometers underground. The rock fractures and the natural gas locked within it escapes through precisely drilled pipes to the surface. Fracking supposedly opens many doors to new oil reserves, but a lot can go wrong in this process and the environment almost always pays the price[i].

Because fracking is a relatively new technology, not much is known about it and regulations are still being put into place. Oil companies such as Plains Exploration and Production Co based in Baldwin Hills and the Inglewood area are pushing for fracking to expand in the area[ii], but many Californians are opposed to the idea and with good reason[iii].

Fracking in other states has caused extensive groundwater pollution, air pollution, and climate change. For instance, children’s asthma rates were three times higher in a Texan drilling district compared to the rest of the state[iv]. Even though there has not yet been extensive fracking in Southern California, citizens want to put a halt to it until it can be proven to be done safely. In May 2012, 50,000 Californians already signed a petition to ban fracking[v].

In Baldwin Hills, Plains Exploration and Production Co have been busy studying the effects of fracking in hopes to start construction on many fracking wells in the largest urban oil field in the nation[vi]. Their 200-page study details the effects of fracking on water and air pollution, seismic activity, noise pollution, and on the residents of the area[vii]. While their year-long report, prepared by an independent researcher, found that fracking has little effects on all of the above, many are still skeptical.

The local residents claimed to feel increased seismic activity which they think is due to fracking, but could also be due to the fault line the area lies on. One of the researchers might also be too closely tied to the oil industry to give an objective report. And while the report was based over a year, it still only considers the short-term effects. Long-term effects have yet to be seen in the Inglewood study but could very well include groundwater leaching, air pollution and increased earthquakes[viii]. It also does not consider the huge amount of water the industry will require. In a drought-ridden area that already depends heavily on importing water from distant sources, fracking could put an enormous strain on Los Angeles’ water resources.

In addition to the environmental problems fracking can potentially cause, oil and natural gas extraction and refinery have caused many other detrimental problems in Los Angeles County. One of the most well known instances involves the site selection process for the Belmont Learning Center in Westlake. Staff of the Los Angeles Unified School District withheld information regarding the safety of the site on which the Learning Center was to be built, above the Los Angeles Oil Fields and an oil waste disposal site[ix].

Soil contamination with methane and sulfur containing gases was the main concern with the site[x]. Exposure to methane and hydrogen sulfide is dangerous and can be deadly. Methane is an extremely flammable gas and can be explosive at high enough concentrations; it can also make you sick. Hydrogen sulfide is a toxin that most greatly affects the nervous system in a way that is similar to cyanide, and can result in death[xi].

It is now known that the Belmont Learning Center was built in a methane zone, a zone around oil fields in which methane levels could at any point rise to explosive levels from the underground fields as dubbed by the city of Los Angeles[xii]. An explosion caused by a rapid accumulation of methane in 1985 leveled a Ross Dress for Less in Fairfax that was also in a methane zone[xiii]. This zone was above the Salt Lake oil field, and it is believed that increased pressure in the oil wells from the reinjection of water caused the gas to seep upward, through faults and old oil wells until it reached the surface[xiv]. Since methane gas is odorless, no one noticed the build up until it was too late. Now, there are necessary measures such as adequate ventilation and monitors in building situated in methane zones[xv].

Much of the effects of oil and natural gas on the environment come from air pollution and water pollution while refining. In Los Angeles County, some of the major refineries are: Chevron in El Segundo, Exxon Mobile in Torrance, and BP in Carson. Groundwater contamination can arise from the escape of natural gas (methane) as well as other gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene that seep into the soil and eventually leach into groundwater[xvi].

These gases can also stay in the air, causing increased amount of lung diseases and other health hazards for humans. They are also a critical component to smog, especially the photochemical LA-type smog, named for being characteristic of the smog found in Los Angeles. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can also become ionized and when mixed with rain turn into their acidic forms, leading to acid rain and destroying aquatic ecosystems and harming terrestrial vegetation[xvii].

Sulfur in particular can be very dangerous. In 1952, the infamous black sulfurous smog covered London for days, and led to the deaths of 4000 people. The sulfuric compounds were trapped in the air by an inversion layer of cold air trapped under a layer of hot air and geographical obstacles. Los Angeles is in prime location for an inversion layer with the cool sea breezes blowing inland and getting blocked by the mountains[xviii].

Many refineries “scrub” out sulfur from coal because of its extreme toxicity using calcium carbonate or similar substances to react and combine with sulfur and filter it from the emissions. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, sulfur emissions have been greatly reduced from the atmosphere. This process of scrubbing, however, takes energy and the combustion of coal to power scrubbing results in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere[xix]. Albeit a greenhouse gas, it is the much-preferred alternative.

Chevron in El Segundo has greatly reduced their flare emissions since 2002[xx], but from January to March 2012 they still released a little more than 10,000 lbs of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur and other chemicals combined[xxi]. Flare emissions are used to burn methane gas in order to prevent pressure build-up when extracting and refining oil.

In 2008, the Exxon Mobile refinery in Torrance was sited to have uncontrolled releases of methane and benzene into the atmosphere. These releases penetrated the soil and contaminated groundwater. The vapors also penetrated a few homes surrounding the refinery and threatened indoor air quality and those residents’ health. The Regional Water Quality Board teamed up with the Department of Toxic Substance Control and Exxon Mobile in order to alleviate the problem[xxii].

Exxon Mobile has had a history of leaping through environmental loopholes and simply not following the laws[xxiii]. They have paid multiple times hundreds of thousands of dollars for breaking environmental laws on emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic substances[xxiv]. Even today, they still have bouts of excessive flaring at the Torrance refinery.

The BP refinery in Carson has also had its share of water and air pollution problems over the years and has worked to reduce its emissions. According to their Environmental Statement, they have reduced criteria pollutants by 56%. They started to recycle some of their waste products, such as the oil sludge. There is also an onsite publicly owned treatment works in order to remove chemicals in the water they discharge, namely benzene[xxv].

Oil and natural gas extraction and refining immensely impacts the environment, in a mostly negative way. Deaths, illnesses, massive amounts of pollution and increased climate change have all been left in its wake. Yet there is a silver lining. The accidents and mishaps have led to tighter regulations and legislature regarding oil and natural gas extraction and refinery, and are starting to the publics’ eyes to the externalities of fossil fuels, hopefully leading to a change in the way we consume energy and the sources we get our energy from.

About the Author: Lauren is a senior majoring in Neuroscience at USC.

[i] Howarth, Robert W., Anthony Ingraffea, and Terry Engelder. “Natural Gas: Should Fracking Stop?” Nature 477.7364 (2011): 271-75. Print.

[ii] Vives, Ruben. “Inglewood Oil Field Fracking Study Finds No Harm from the Method.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/10/local/la-me-fracking-baldwin-hills-20121010>.

[iii] “California, Here They Come: Now Is the Time to Ban Fracking.” Food & Water Watch. Food & Water Watch, May 2012. Web. 21 Sept. 2012.

[iv] Ghosh, Anna. “Citizens, Groups Calling for a Ban on Fracking in California.” Northcentral PA. Feed: Food and Water Watch, 15 May 2012. Web. 21 Sept. 2012. <http://www.northcentralpa.com/feeditem/2012-05-15_citizens-groups-calling-ban-fracking-california>.

[v] Ghosh, A.

[vi] Vives, R. “Inglewood Oil Field Fracking Study Finds No Harm from the Method.”

[vii] “Hydraulic Fracturing Study PXP Inglewood Oil Fiel.” Cardno Entrix (2012): 1-206. Print.

[viii] Vives, Ruben. “Baldwin Hills Fracking Study Is Questioned.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/15/local/la-me-fracking-study-20121015>.

[ix] Wolfson, Richard. “Environmental Impacts of Fossil Fuels.” Energy, Environment, and Climate. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2008. 130-50. Print.

[x] Hersh, Bob. “Citizens’ Report on Brownfields.” The Center for Public Environmental Oversight & the Pacific Studies Center 4.1 (2002): n. pag. Print.

[xi] Wolfson, R.

[xii] Finley, Allysia. “Broke—and Building the Most Expensive School in U.S. History”. Wall Street Journal. (2010): n. pag. Print.

[xiii] Ramos, George; Stephen Braun. “Major Methane Gas Leak Closes Shopping Strip”. Los Angeles Times. (1989): n. pag. Print.

[xiv] Chilingar, G. V., and B. Endres. “Environmental Hazards Posed by the Los Angeles Basin Urban Oilfields: An Historical Perspective of Lessons Learned.” Environmental Geology 47.2 (2005): 302-17. Print.

[xv] Lehr, Jay H.; Marve Hyman, Tyler Gass, William J. Seevers (2002). Handbook of complex environmental remediation problems. McGraw-Hill Professional. p.8.45–8.47.

[xvi] Fargione, Joseph E., Richard J. Plevin, and Jason D. Hill. “The Ecological Impact of Biofuels.” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 41.1 (2010): 351-77. Print.

[xvii] Wolfson, R.

[xviii] Wolfson, R.

[xix] Wolfson, R.

[xx] “Environment.” Chevron El Segundo Refinery. Chevron, 2012. Web. <http://elsegundo.chevron.com/home/environmentandsafety/environment.aspx>.

[xxi] “Chevron El Segundo Refinery 2012 Rule 1118 Quarterly Flare Emissions.” South Coast Air Quality Management District. South Coast Air Quality Management District, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. <http://www.aqmd.gov/comply/1118/rpts/2012/Chev12.htm>

[xxii] Egoscue, Tracy. “Executive Officer’s Report.” California Regional Water Quality Control Board, 6 Mar. 2008. Web.

[xxiii] Mattera, Philip. “Exxon Mobil: Corporate Rap Sheet.” Corporate Research Project. Corporate Research Project, 14 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.corp-research.org/exxonmobil>.

[xxiv] Exxon Mobil Environmental Violations at Torrance, Calif. Refinery. Rep. no. SEC 10-Q. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Federal Contractor Misconduct Database. Web. <http://www.contractormisconduct.org/index.cfm/1,73,222,html?CaseID=615>.

[xxv]Environmental Statement. Rep. Carson: BP West Coast Products LLC Carson Refinery, 2009. Web. <http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/STAGING/global_assets/downloads/V/verfied_site_reports/N_America/Carson_VSR_2008.pdf>.