By Emily Alpert Reyes
In the morning while walking to her car, Michelle Kennedy sometimes detects a smell like cat urine. She says the asthma her 6-year-old suffers seems to have worsened.
Kennedy suspects the oil and gas wells pumping in her South Los Angeles neighborhood. She was especially troubled to hear from neighbors that acid was being injected in some wells roughly a mile from her home.
Now, partly in response to concerns raised by Kennedy and her neighbors, the City Council on Friday moved toward banning hydraulic fracturing, acidizing and other controversial methods of coaxing oil and gas from wells, agreeing to draft new rules that would prohibit "well stimulation" until adequate environmental safeguards are adopted by state and federal governments.
Activists argue that methods such as hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking, can taint water or trigger earthquakes when wastewater is injected underground.
"Until these radical methods of oil and gas extraction are at the very least covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, until chemicals are disclosed and problems are honestly reported, until we're safe from earthquakes, until our atmosphere is safe from methane leaks, we need a fracking moratorium," Councilman Paul Koretz told a cheering crowd before the meeting.
Hydraulic fracturing frees up pockets of oil and natural gas trapped in shale using injections of water mixed with chemicals. Acidizing, which is more commonly reported in Los Angeles, involves injecting such chemicals as hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid into wells. Such "extreme extraction methods" use chemicals that can harm the skin, eyes and respiratory system and cause cancer, said Angela Johnson Meszaros, general counsel for Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.
Oil and gas companies say fracking and other well stimulation technologies are safe, proven ways to yield more energy and generate jobs. Nick Ortiz of the Western States Petroleum Assn. told council members at a meeting this week that such methods had "never been associated with any confirmed case of groundwater contamination." Business groups such as the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. also contended that Los Angeles doesn't need new rules because California lawmakers passed fracking regulations last year.
"This is a solution looking for a problem," said Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn. He cited a yearlong study of the Inglewood Oil Field, which found that hydraulic fracturing had no effect on the environment or the health of people living nearby.
Environmental watchdogs said the Inglewood study failed to examine long-term risks, such as chemicals possibly sullying groundwater. Other research has raised concerns about increased levels of methane in drinking water wells near fracking operations in Pennsylvania. Many environmentalists say the new state regulations didn't go far enough.
Under the state law, "We're basically telling people, 'Let yourself be guinea pigs and we'll study this. If this is a problem, we'll tell you after the fact,'" said Brenna Norton, Southern California organizer for the environmental group Food & Water Watch.
When a neighbor recently told Lillian Marenco that acid had been used at nearby wells, she clapped her hands over her cheeks. "Oh, God," she said. One drilling site is down her Budlong Avenue block. A pungent smell lingers over the home where Marenco tends her garden.
Acid has been used for "well stimulation" there in the last year, according to data reported to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. But what that means is in dispute. The company that operates the wells, Freeport-McMoRan, says it undertook "routine maintenance operations" using low volumes of acid, not "acidizing" as activists have described it.
The debate underscores a key question facing the city: How to properly word the proposed fracking ban. Freeport-McMoRan spokesman Eric Kinneberg argued that the "generic scope" of the current proposal "could prohibit even routine well maintenance activities." Neighborhood activists have the opposite worry -- that a ban won't be comprehensive enough.
The city of Los Angeles currently has 1,880 active and 2,932 abandoned oil and gas wells, according to the state Department of Conservation. If approved, Los Angeles' ban on fracking and other well stimulation practices would be a first for an oil-producing city in California, according to Zierman. Other cities and counties, including Carson and Culver City, support a statewide ban or moratorium.
Prohibiting such practices in Los Angeles would only go so far: A Times analysis of data reported to the air quality district since last summer shows that fewer than a tenth of the Los Angeles County wells that have used acidizing, gravel packing or hydraulic fracturing are in Los Angeles' city limits.
Backers of the ban say that even if few wells are immediately affected, it will prevent the practice from spreading and prod the county and state to ban fracking as well. Zierman argued that preventing fracking and other such extraction techniques could discourage local drilling entirely.
That would be fine with some activists. "We're thinking they'll pack up and go home," said DonnaAnn Ward, a West Adams resident and founder of the grass-roots group Cowatching Oil L.A. Without tools like fracking, "there's no money in it."
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