By Christine Mai-Duc
The oil-rich city of Carson has imposed an emergency moratorium on all new drilling, halting efforts by a petroleum company to bore more than 200 wells near homes and a state university.
The drilling ban, which runs for 45 days but could be extended up to two years, was driven by a fear that Occidental Petroleum would employ hydraulic fracturing to coax oil from one of the city's vast oil fields.
Occidental has repeatedly denied it will use fracking, an extraction technique that involves blasting a mix of water, chemicals and sand deep into the ground to fracture rock formations and free trapped oil. Critics contend the practice can contaminate groundwater or even trigger earthquakes when water is injected underground.
"There are too many questions, too many unknowns," said Councilman Al Robles, who proposed the moratorium. "I refuse to gamble with the health and well-being of the residents."
The moratorium halts any new drilling while the city studies the safety of various well stimulation methods and its authority to regulate them. Occidental declined to comment on the council's unanimous vote late Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. said that to his knowledge, Carson is the first city in California to ban all oil drilling, even temporarily.
While company officials initially said they might use fracking, they have since changed course, vowing not to use the technique at the Carson site and insisting it would be ineffective there.
But many residents have expressed doubts that Occidental would keep its word.
"We don't trust them at all," said Dianne Thomas, a 43-year resident whose home is less than two miles from the proposed drilling site.
A state law that took effect in January requires oil companies to obtain permits for fracking while state agencies develop more comprehensive regulations. But those regulations are not expected to be finalized until next year.
Increasingly, cities are turning to local ordinances to fight back. The Los Angeles City Council voted last month to draft regulations that would ban fracking, acid stimulation and "gravel-packing," but has yet to vote on them.
Oil industry professionals say the debates in cities like Los Angeles and Carson reflect an irrational fear of modern-day oil drilling.
"Fracking has become the proxy for a much larger discussion and debate," said Tupper Hull, the Western States Petroleum Assn. spokesman.
Occidental wants to drill the wells, some more than 2 miles deep, in an effort to squeeze more oil from the long-exploited Dominguez Oil Field. The company estimates it can produce up to 6,000 barrels of oil daily from the wells.
Occidental has promised to disguise and soundproof the oil operation in a warehouse complex and pay for a monitor that would ensure the company is complying with city regulations. A draft environmental report examining the project concluded that the proposed project would have no significant effects on air quality, soil or groundwater after mitigation.
But dozens of residents who spoke during the council meeting urged their leaders to adopt the moratorium.
David Noflin, a longtime resident who owns a printing shop, said that Occidental sees Carson only as an investment. "But to those of us who live in Carson, this is our home.... This is what we're going to leave to our children and grandchildren."
The vote also halts all negotiations with Occidental in response to a recent announcement that the company is moving to Texas and spinning off its California operations into a new company.
Legally, city planning staff said, the new entity would be bound by whatever provisions Occidental agrees to, but several council members seemed unsatisfied.
"It's like being left at the altar, and suddenly somebody else appears," Robles told The Times.
Carson is no stranger to oil drilling. More than 600 wells have been drilled in the Dominguez field, which has produced more than 270 million barrels of oil since its discovery in 1923.
The city also continues to grapple with the cleanup of the Carousel housing tract, where soil tests in 2008 revealed contamination from benzene and petroleum. The homes were built atop a retired oil tank farm.
A local water quality board has ordered Shell Oil to clean up the mess.
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