The Pope May Speak About Climate Justice, But in L.A., the Church Leases Land to an Oil Company

Oil and holy water don’t mix.

Charles Davis

An Allenco employee closes the entrance to an oil field on land owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. (Charles Davis)

LOS ANGE­LES — Most peo­ple don’t even know they’re there, hid­den behind a 10-foot wall in the mid­dle of one of the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed neigh­bor­hoods in Los Ange­les: 21 oil wells with the capac­i­ty to pump out more than 58 bar­rels a day.

Allenco is working to clear a few last regulatory hurdles and reopen the site for drilling. Local residents are calling on the archdiocese to keep the site closed.

The oil field is locat­ed in Uni­ver­si­ty Park, a low-income, mul­tira­cial neigh­bor­hood in which Lati­nos make up near­ly 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The land is owned by the Arch­dio­cese of Los Ange­les. The com­pa­ny oper­at­ing the wells, Allen­co, vol­un­tar­i­ly shut them down amid crit­i­cism and health con­cerns in 2013. On a recent Fri­day after­noon, only one employ­ee could be seen milling about the site.

But now, Allen­co is work­ing to clear a few last reg­u­la­to­ry hur­dles and reopen the site for drilling. Local res­i­dents are call­ing on the arch­dio­cese to keep the site closed.

Art Gomez, stand­ing a block away in the dri­ve­way of his elder­ly mother’s home, remem­bers when the wells were active. There was a foul smell,” he says, scrunch­ing his nose.

In 2013, after years of com­plaints from locals, inspec­tors from the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency decid­ed to check for them­selves. It sick­ened them.

I’ve been to oil and gas pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties through the region, but I’ve nev­er had an expe­ri­ence like that,” said Jaren Blu­men­feld, then EPA region­al admin­is­tra­tor for the Pacif­ic South­west, as report­ed in the Los Ange­les Times. We suf­fered sore throats, cough­ing and severe headaches that lin­gered for hours.”

Soon after, Allen­co closed the site vol­un­tar­i­ly under pres­sure from Sen. Bar­bara Box­er (D) and oth­ers, and Allen­co was hit with a law­suit from Los Ange­les City Attor­ney Mike Feur, accus­ing the com­pa­ny of ignor­ing air qual­i­ty reg­u­la­tions. Reg­u­la­tors found that the odor cre­at­ed a pub­lic nui­sance,” and that equip­ment was releas­ing smog-form­ing compounds.

The com­pa­ny set­tled that law­suit in 2016, agree­ing to pay out $1.25 mil­lion in civ­il penal­ties. As part of the set­tle­ment, it must come into com­pli­ance with envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. Once it does so, it can open again.

Hold­ing her daughter’s hand just out­side the oil field, Tania Velásquez says she moved to the neigh­bor­hood just six months ago. She’s heard about what it used to be like here, and wor­ries that if the site reopens, It’s going to be bad for my child.” STAND‑L.A., a coali­tion of com­mu­ni­ty groups opposed to urban oil drilling, is cam­paign­ing to keep the site closed. It wants Allenco’s land­lord, the Catholic Church, to stop allow­ing fos­sil fuels to be extracted.

You’ve got a ten­ant [Allen­co] on this prop­er­ty that’s a known law­break­er,” says orga­niz­er Eric Romann, and you’ve got an activ­i­ty that’s known to cause harm to the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty.” The arch­dio­cese, he says, should ter­mi­nate the lease … and make sure the site nev­er reopens.” Res­i­dents ral­lied in front of the archidoces’s office Octo­ber 4.

Short­ly after Pope Fran­cis released his 2015 encycli­cal on cli­mate change, which declared tech­nol­o­gy based on the use of high­ly pol­lut­ing fos­sil fuels … needs to be pro­gres­sive­ly replaced with­out delay,” Uni­ver­si­ty Park res­i­dents sent him a video plead­ing their case.

Some Catholic insti­tu­tions seem to have tak­en the encycli­cal to heart: In ear­ly Octo­ber, more than 40 Catholic orga­ni­za­tions, rep­re­sent­ing investors worth $5.5 tril­lion, announced they were divest­ing from any com­pa­nies that extract gas, oil or coal.

But the church has not act­ed in Los Ange­les. In addi­tion to the Allen­co site, the arch­dio­cese leas­es to Freeport McMoran Inc., which oper­ates 22 oil wells, prompt­ing sim­i­lar com­plaints of tox­ic odors and demands that it be shut down.

In a state­ment to In These Times, the arch­dio­cese says it is work­ing with the mayor’s office, the Petro­le­um Admin­is­tra­tor for the City of Los Ange­les and Allen­co to explore pos­si­ble alter­na­tive uses for the site in our con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to the health and well-being of the entire com­mu­ni­ty.” It declined to elab­o­rate as to what those alter­na­tives were.

Ulti­mate­ly, local cam­paign­ers want the city to ban urban oil drilling alto­geth­er. Accord­ing to a 2015 report from the Lib­er­ty Hill Foun­da­tion, a local social jus­tice non­prof­it, Los Ange­les is the largest urban oil field in the coun­try,” with near­ly 5,200 active wells, 70 per­cent of which are with­in 1,500 feet of a home, school or hospital.

In the mean­time, advo­cates want the arch­dio­cese to accept respon­si­bil­i­ty for extend­ing the life of an indus­try that the head of their church has labeled a threat to the planet.

As Pope Fran­cis once post­ed on Twit­ter, The earth, our home, is begin­ning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” For now, at least, his church is still play­ing a role.

Charles Davis is a jour­nal­ist pub­lished by out­lets such as Al Jazeera, The Inter­cept, The Nation and The New Repub­lic. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @charliearchy.
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