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LA planning officials recommend no moratorium on fracking 'at this time'

Pumpjacks at the Inglewood oil fields in California in March. Some of the most controversial methods of oil extraction, like fracking, oil sands production and Arctic drilling, are also expensive. That's made them less profitable as the price of oil continues to fall.

Efforts to prohibit hydraulic fracturing and other oil extraction techniques in Los Angeles have hit a road block in the city’s Planning Department. In a new report, city planners recommend that LA not pursue the moratorium approved by the city council eight months ago. 

February’s vote drew close attention from the oil industry and praise from anti-fracking activists. Los Angeles was the first California city where fracking actually happens to call for a ban on the practice. At the time, the city council asked LA’s planning department to report back on how to write up regulations for non-conventional oil extraction, where well operators force oil and natural gas out of shale and sand using steam, water, gravel and chemicals.

In a letter accompanying the report, Deputy Director of Planning Alan Bell says Los Angeles would need technical assistance to develop a ban on fracking. “Developing new regulations on this complex issue requires collaboration with an expert in petroleum and natural gas engineering or geology, and at present, there is no qualified City Staff with this set of expertise,” Bell wrote.

Even once someone is hired, authors of the report argue that existing federal, state and county rules could trump any new restrictions the city might enact on fracking. According to the report, “The State's authorization to conduct well stimulation does not preempt local jurisdictions from establishing traditional land use and zoning regulations which can dictate where oil and gas activity takes place,” however, oil industry groups have “argued that local jurisdictions have no authority to regulate how oil and gas extraction occurs.”

The 67-page report also points out that oil producers are aggressively challenging local bans, including in the nearby city of Compton. After Compton city leaders approved a moratorium, the Western States Petroleum Association sued, arguing that state rules pre-empted the city. Compton withdrew its moratorium in September.  

A lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council says that LA planners should go back to the drawing board. "City officials did not do the one thing they were directed to do,” says NRDC’s Damon Nagami. “[C]reate an ordinance that would place a moratorium on fracking in Los Angeles.”

The issue will return to city council via two committees, Planning and Land Use Management, and Energy and the Environment, later this month.