The Planet

Why Mark Ruffalo Led a Tour of Los Angeles’ Oil and Gas Drilling Operations

by Tina Daunt

March 1, 2016
Mark Ruffalo speaks to a bus of entertainment industry leaders and community members about the health and climate impacts of drilling. Photo by Vasco Lucas Nunes.

Eighty years ago, the oil industry ruled Los Angeles, as determined industrialists—the Dohenys, the Gettys, and the Bells—discovered that the West Coast basin contained one of the world’s largest stocks of sour crude. Thousands of oil wells dotted the landscape, turning the city into an international power hub that gave rise to other industries—like movies, aerospace, and home construction. And then slowly, as purer oil was discovered in the Middle East, many of Los Angeles’ wells were shut down.

By the 1960s, oil production was a fraction of what it had been during its apex. Los Angeles’ powerful mayors didn’t even bother assigning full-time personnel to one of City Hall’s most powerful jobs—the petroleum administrator.

Until now. 

The city’s oil fields, which had become mere tourist attractions, are being quietly brought back to life by new developments in hydraulic fracking—jarring loose trapped fuel with PPC balls (tiny plastic pellets) and acid shot through layers of terrestrial gunk and rock. The Phoenix-based company Freeport-McMoRan, a major international miner of gold, copper, and cobalt and extractor of oil and gas, has acquired a number of derelict oil fields within sight of housing, shops, and schools in South Los Angeles. Local groups and residents—terrified to discover that the land under their homes was being fractured and replumbed—have called on the city to take action. On February 16, the L.A. City Council passed a resolution, quickly approved by Mayor Eric Garcetti, to hire a petro-czar in the coming weeks to manage the new exploration. “I couldn’t believe that a city that was built on oil no longer had a full-time person dealing with oil,” Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times after the council vote.

But in the wake of the recent methane leak from Southern California Gas Company’s underground storage facility near Porter Ranch, which forced thousands to evacuate their homes in the San Fernando Valley community and sent a wake-up call to city and state regulators, there is a larger battle building over the future of the oil industry throughout California. 

Driving through the Inglewood Oil Field, the nation's largest urban oil field. Photo by Vasco Lucas Nunes.

With California Governor Jerry Brown singled out as failing to live up to his claims of being a “green” executive, another Los Angeles industry—entertainment—is leading the charge to shut down oil and gas development in the state by 2030. To raise awareness of L.A.’s urban oil drilling operations, actor Mark Ruffalo—who successfully fought similar oil exploration in New York—took Leonardo DiCaprio, Norman Lear, Rashida Jones, Diane Kruger, Revenant producer Mary Parent, and other industry people on a February 26 tour of the city’s newly revived oil fields, where residents have complained of noxious fumes from neighborhood wells.

“If Governor Brown is going to walk around saying that he is a climate-change hero, then by God, we are going to hold him to his word,” says Ruffalo, who has formed a group called Hollywood United for a Healthy California with “a goal of freeing California from oil and gas extraction.”

“This governor is adding 300 new wells a month to California’s drilling,” Ruffalo says. “He is the most drilling-friendly governor in the United States at this moment.”

On Hollywood United’s website, the group says, “The oil industry has exploited our state for too long. Hollywood, as the most iconic and historic industry California has ever known, is now speaking out to stop climate change and protect our health and environment.” Ruffalo tells GOOD that more than 150 people in the entertainment industry have signed on to the campaign. 

Ashley Hernandez, youth organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, shares her story living near oil drilling in Wilmington, California. Photo by Vasco Lucas Nunes.

“We are actors, writers, directors, producers, studio executives, lawyers, agents, managers and publicists,” continues the statement on Hollywood United’s site. “Our industry generates billions of dollars in revenue for California each year.” 

The history of oil drilling in Los Angeles stretches back to 1892, when former gold prospector Edward L. Doheny and his partner Charles A. Canfield used a sharpened eucalyptus log to drill the first well in what became the Los Angeles City Oil Field, stretching from the existing Civic Center northwest toward what’s now Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park.

Three years later, the field—by then a skeletal forest of towering derricks—was pumping 750,000 barrels a year. Other fields popped up around the basin and, by the 1930s, 77 million barrels of oil a year were coming out of the city. And there have been environmental issues from the beginning: In 1907, oil storage tanks made from redwood broke and poured thousands of gallons into Echo Park Lake, which promptly caught fire and burned for two days.

Today, Los Angeles County remains home to more than 3,000 productive oil wells that yield 230 million barrels of crude per year. If not for the recent crash in gas prices, activists fear oil exploration in the city would have grown even further by now. The city of L.A.’s oil is close to the surface and easy to find, but the basin’s complex geology gives the crude plenty of nooks and crannies in which to hide and makes any given well’s long-term volume production a tricky proposition. Perhaps more important, the city has sprawled, surrounding all its historic oil fields with houses, shops, schools, and hospitals. 

According to STAND-LA, “16,000 people live within a half-mile radius” of the city's Murphy Drill Site. Photo by Vasco Lucas Nunes.

Before the tour of Los Angeles’ wells, DiCaprio took to Twitter to voice his opposition to urban oil exploration. “Oil drilling in L.A. occurs dangerously close to low-income communities of color,” DiCaprio tweeted. “Neighborhood drilling is environmental injustice.” He urged residents to support efforts by STAND-LA, a coalition of community groups opposed to the drilling, to “#Keepitintheground & protect these communities.”

Responding to the concerns of residents in South Los Angeles, earlier this month Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson rallied his colleagues to unanimously adopt a “more proactive approach to ensure that oil and gas production in the city is conducted in the safest manner possible.” But after urging the council to support the hiring of a petroleum administrator, Wesson amended his motion to state that the administrator would be required to have experience working in the oil industry. Activists, meanwhile, want their own say in who is chosen for the job.

“The health impacts and safety threats to residents require a sweeping overhaul of our regulatory system, that has protecting residents’ welfare at its foundation,” STAND-LA said in response to Wesson’s motion. “The city continues to fail to understand the gravity of the regulatory deficiencies, and filling a job position with vague responsibilities without a comprehensive process amounts to another symbolic band-aid that seeks to maintain an antiquated system that does not protect Angelenos. We cannot allow a new petroleum administrator to double down on the city’s broken regulatory framework for neighborhood oil and gas extraction. If the city is going to fill the position, it should be with someone whose training and experience is rooted in protecting public health and safety.”

“We have the biggest urban oil field in the world,” Ruffalo says. “It’s happening right here in the middle of Los Angeles, which is supposed to be the healthy, ‘green’ capital of the world. It’s such a step backwards.”

Norman Lear and Mark Ruffalo. Photo by Tina Daunt.

Ruffalo has been holding Hollywood screenings of Dear Governor Brown, a 20-minute anti-fracking documentary aimed at the governor and directed by Jon Bowermaster (who directed Dear Governor Cuomo during Ruffalo’s campaign against fracking in New York).

Norman Lear, who participated in the oil well tour and is considered something of a Hollywood elder statesman, says in an interview with GOOD that he is deeply concerned about Brown’s position on drilling in California, especially after portraying himself as an environmental renegade at the recent world climate summit in Paris.

“It shocks me that Jerry Brown, of all people, is taking credit for being something he isn’t,” Lear says. “He’s a villain here. He’s allowing this to happen … the people running these oil companies don’t have children living close to this.”

Overlooking one of the oil fields at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in South Los Angeles, Ruffalo says: “Imagine if this were a wind and solar field. It would employ a hundred times more people than the oil and gas industry is putting here right now. So the idea that it’s jobs, that it’s the economy, that’s a load of BS. We need to change this.”

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Why Mark Ruffalo Led a Tour of Los Angeles’ Oil and Gas Drilling Operations