Reasonable people can disagree about the level of regulation the Los Angeles City Council should exert over the city’s business climate, but it is rare – if not unprecedented – for the City Council to vote, casually and without extensive staff analysis, to shut down one of the city’s most historically important industries. 

Yet that is precisely what happened Feb. 28. Unbeknownst to anyone but a small and vocal core of radical environmental activists who wrote the measure, the council voted to draft an ordinance that essentially bans oil operations within city limits.

The language in the motion was drafted and prepared by a national activist group that told the council the proposal was needed to deal with the subject of “fracking” (i.e., hydraulic fracturing). The vote took 12 minutes. There wasn’t much discussion because the council had not commissioned staff reports analyzing the direct and indirect economic impacts of the proposal.

Why was this unprecedented vote considered so quickly? Because with its pun-friendly name, the term fracking has become an effective nonspecific rallying point for extreme activist groups aiming to scare the public about environmental harms that have yet to be demonstrated. Amid the cheering after the vote, some of the national activists behind the effort acknowledged the true goal behind measure. The term fracking, it seems, is actually intended to be a catch-all phrase to describe all aspects of oil and gas production, conventional and unconventional alike, according to Washington-based Food and Water Watch, one of the activist groups behind the measure. In an interview with online publication Streetsblog Los Angeles after the vote, FWW organizer Brenna Norton boldly stated as much when she acknowledged, “It’s easier to engage and organize people around ‘fracking’ than a complicated list of practices.”  

On the specific issue of hydraulic fracturing, it is important to note that the process is a routine well-completion technique that has been used more than 1.2 million times in the United States since Harry Truman was president. Its fundamental safety has been repeatedly confirmed by President Barack Obama’s scientific advisers and appointees. Its safety has also been confirmed by countless state regulators, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s director of conservation, who is himself a climate scientist. Furthermore, new state regulations were enacted this past year that are widely recognized as being among the most comprehensive in the nation.

None of this, however, is the real focus for the activists pushing the measure; their real goal is to shut down all oil and gas production in California – starting with Los Angeles. Although the council’s discussion was framed entirely about fracking, activists inserted generic terms such as “well stimulation” into the measure to broaden its scope. The term is so generic in fact it captures routine well-maintenance activities. Without maintenance, oil wells can’t operate.

The measure also includes a ban on injection wells for oil production. What most people don’t know, but a staff report would have revealed, is that 95 percent of the fluid that comes out of an oil well is brackish water that is comingled with the oil in the same geologic zone. The oil is skimmed from the water, and the water is treated and reinjected back into the formation.

Ban on jobs

A ban on injection wells, then, is a ban on oil production within the city limits and thus a ban on the thousands of well-paying jobs that the industry provides the city. Also, it’s a ban on the millions of dollars in taxes and fees that the industry generates for the city ($1.5 billion per year in Los Angeles County). 

As a kicker, banning local oil production doesn’t necessarily mean that the city’s residents will use less oil, it simply means more will have to be imported via tanker or rail car.

The timing of this vote is particularly ironic given that one of L.A.’s largest companies, Occidental Petroleum, announced that it is moving its corporate headquarters to Texas. A new company with a California focus is being established and company officials are deciding where to locate the new headquarters. Media reports indicate that Occidental’s move has alarmed some city officials, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has apparently made overtures to have the new company headquartered in Los Angeles to blunt the economic impact of the move. 

This creates an interesting quandary. How does the mayor tell a new company that we want you here when the City Council just blindly voted on a generic measure handed to them by activist groups that bans the activities of the new company?

Votes have consequences and so does the terminology used to form measures that are voted on. Catch-all proposals rarely work out well and the consequences of this vote are unusually damaging.  

Fortunately in the case of the city’s fracking ordinance, the city attorney has time to weigh the impact and the council has time to ask for extensive staff analysis before a final ordinance is written. The activists who screamed in support of this measure will likely insist that such diligence is unnecessary, but the city’s leaders would be wise to slow down and do some homework.

Dave Quast is California Director of Energy in Depth, an education and research project of the California Independent Petroleum Association.

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