The Long Beach Sustainable City Commission recently approved a recommendation intended to accelerate the phase-out of oil drilling in the city and address the climate crisis.

The commission on Jan. 28 voted to draft a memo with recommendations for Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council that would urge them to declare a climate emergency to halt new oil drilling permits in Long Beach. It also asks the City Council to move more swiftly toward a net-zero emissions economy by expanding rebate programs to encourage decarbonizing buildings and transportation options in Long Beach.

The commission’s recommendations would have to be taken up by the City Council for them to carry any legal weight, but the vote advances the cause of local activists who have fought for a quicker pivot away from fossil fuels.

“This is an environmental justice issue, most oil drilling occurs in communities of color,” said Nicole Evan, a campaigner with the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign.

Long Beach is already moving toward eliminating oil production based on financial factors, with wells estimated to become economically unviable in 2035, but, in the meantime, oil taxes, sales and fees still make up a significant portion of the city’s budget, contributing $18.9 million in fiscal year 2020.

Oil production in Long Beach is naturally declining as local wells lose about 6% of their production each year on average, according to an October memo from the city’s energy resources department, but drilling new wells has offset that decline to some extent.

When oil prices plummeted during the pandemic, nobody drilled a new well in Long Beach for 18 months, but companies recently ramped up production again, and the city is averaging one and a half new wells per month, according to Energy Resources Director Bob Dowell.

Dowell said the city is relying on money brought in by new wells to fund the high cost of safely capping abandoned wells, a price tag currently estimated at $81 million to $146 million.

The commission’s recommendation directs city officials to collaborate with Los Angeles County’s third-party amortization study to accelerate the phase out of all oil operations, increase the state’s contribution to abandonment liabilities and identify alternative sources of revenue and options to help oil field workers transition into new careers.

At Thursday’s meeting, community members and environmental justice advocates showed support for the recommendation and applauded the commission for prioritizing the health and safety of the city’s most vulnerable communities.

“We must demand that the City Council go beyond adopting your three suggested recommendations,” said Juan Ovalle, board member of the Long Beach Reform Coalition.

Studies have shown that oil wells produce harmful carcinogens including benzene and formaldehyde and that those living near these sites are at greater risk of respiratory issues and preterm births. In a recent study, Stanford researchers found an increased concentration of air pollutants such as toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds downwind from oil and gas wells in California.

“In California, Black and Latinx communities face some of the highest pollution from oil and gas wells. If we care about environmental justice and making sure every kid has a chance to be healthy, we should care about this,” wrote David Gonzalez, lead author of the Standord study.

Long-term exposure to toxic particulate matter also increases the risk of death from COVID-19 by 11%.

The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to support a ban on any new drilling in the city and the Sustainable City Commission hopes that Long Beach will follow suit.

The U.S government is also taking steps to ensure the proper plugging and abandonment of wells. On Monday, Jan. 3, the Department of the Interior announced $1.15 billion is available to states from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to create jobs cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells that are polluting residential areas across the country. California is eligible for $61,495,000 to plug the documented 5,356 oil, gas and geothermal orphaned wells on state and private lands, according to a press release from U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California.

“Abandoned wells are an environmental hazard, leaking harmful methane into the air, polluting drinking water, and accelerating the climate crisis,” Padilla said in a statement. “This is an issue that affects the health of both rural and urban Californians, particularly those living in Los Angeles and Central Valley communities who are forced to live, work, and play next to unplugged oil and gas wells.”