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Live next to an oil well? CARB wants to know what's in your air

An oil well next to a home in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Emily Guerin/KPCC
An oil well next to a home in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on November 6, 2017.

The California Air Resources Board is starting a new air monitoring program to find out what people who live near oil and gas wells are breathing.

The agency says it is responding to years of complaints from people living alongside oil development, as well as the realization, heightened by the Aliso Canyon gas leak, that California’s oil and gas infrastructure is aging.

Beginning next year, CARB plans to place trailer-size air monitors in several California neighborhoods for up to four months at a time and measure toxic emissions, smog-forming pollution and greenhouse gasses. The agency will select the communities based on local air agency input, resident concerns, and existing air data showing hotspots for oil and gas emissions.

The goal is to figure out what chemicals oil and gas operations are emitting and what impact, if any, they have on public health.

The new program comes at a time when California is increasingly scrutinizing and collecting emissions data on refineries and other industrial polluters. AB 617, passed during the last legislative session and signed by Gov. Brown, also requires CARB to create air monitoring programs for communities with disproportionate pollution burdens.

Environmental justice activists praised the efforts to gather more data, but some were skeptical that they would actually lead to healthier air for people living in so-called “fence-line” communities.

“We know these emissions are dangerous to health. We know they also drive climate change,” said Martha Dina Argüello, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles. “How much data do we need to act?”

But Elizabeth Scheehle, the branch chief of CARB’s oil and has division, promised the data would not just sit on a shelf.

“We want to make sure we understand what’s going on in these communities, and that if there is a problem, we follow up in the appropriate way to address that problem," she said.

Many environmental justice groups say the most appropriate way to address urban oil and gas development is to phase it out.

“That’s the only way we’re going to address climate change, clean up the smog, and prevent exposure to cancer-causing chemicals,” said Julia May, a staff scientist for Communities for a Better Environment. “In the mean time it’s very encouraging that we have better monitoring technologies, but it shouldn’t be considered the only goal.”

The City of Los Angeles is currently studying the feasibility of phasing out oil and gas development. In June, the city council directed the city’s petroleum administrator to study the public health benefits and economic costs of creating a buffer zone around schools, homes, and other public places where no oil extraction would be allowed. If the buffer is 2,500 feet, like activists are requesting, it would cause 90 percent of the city’s 322 active oil wells to shut down, according to an estimate by the California Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. 

CARB expects to decide which communities to monitor early next year and begin the program within the next six months. 

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.