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In Your Backyard: Urban Oil Extraction

June 13, 2022

For many Americans, oil drilling doesn’t feel like a hometown issue—it’s the concern of far-off places, from 2010’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Urban oil extraction” can even sound like a myth.

In reality, it’s happening in our own backyards.

Once the first US oil well began pumping away in Pennsylvania in 1859, the industry rushed from New York to Oklahoma to California in just two decades. Today, some of the country’s biggest cities suffer the greatest repercussions: The Greenpoint oil spill in Brooklyn, NY, began in 1978 and lasted more than 30 years; it’s one of the worst oil spills on record in the United States. The Los Angeles oil field, the largest urban oil field in the country, has nearly 600,000 residents—most Black or Latino—living less than a quarter-mile from an active drilling site, breathing air heavy with toxic chemicals.

In total, the US produces nearly 15,000,000 oil barrels a day, making it the number one producer of crude oil in the world. Nearly one million oil wells continue to operate in the country, concentrated especially in Texas and North Dakota, and crude oil production is forecast to reach record highs by 2023.

The good news? There is increased awareness of this issue today and a new generation of activists determined to address both climate change and environmental justice in their midst. You already know about Greta Thunberg—it’s time to meet Nalleli Cobo, 2022’s Goldman Prize winner for North America.

Fighting for a Cleaner California

Long before the Hollywood sign hung high in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles was pumping oil. From Dodger Stadium to Koreatown, a forest of oil derricks still stretches through America’s second-largest city. In Nalleli Cobo’s case, an oil well was located just 30 feet from her childhood home.

At the age of nine, the grade-schooler began walking door-to-door through the University Park neighborhood in South Los Angeles, decrying the oil industry’s toxic impacts on human health and ushering her community into action. In addition to protesting the oil well next to her home, Nalleli began organizing on numerous fronts. She co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and successfully sued the city of Los Angeles for environmental racism. In 2020, the site across from her home permanently closed; in February 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a directive to phase out all local oil and gas drilling over the next two decades.

A Renewable Future for All?

L.A. leads the nation as a “solar city”—it averages roughly 40% of its energy consumption from renewable sources; by comparison, the US clocks in at roughly 12%. Of course, the bigger picture is more complicated: L.A. remains the second-largest consumer of petroleum products in the country.

Despite these numbers, the future holds hope: Renewables surpassed the coal and nuclear sectors for the first time in 2020, accounting for over 20% of the country’s electricity generation. Today, one in eleven American homes can be powered by solar energy alone. The trend continues into 2022—as does the work of activists like Nalleli.

Follow Nalleli on social media (Instagram; Twitter) to learn how you can support her work.

About the author

Jacqueline Kehoe

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.

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