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Nalleli Cobo

2022 Goldman Prize Winner

Nalleli Cobo

Environmental Justice
North America
United States

Nalleli Cobo led a coalition to permanently shut down a toxic oil-drilling site in her community in March 2020, at the age of 19—an oil site that caused serious health issues for her and others. Her continued organizing against urban oil extraction has now yielded major policy movement within both the Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which voted unanimously to ban new oil exploration and phase out of existing sites.

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Meet Nalleli Cobo

Nalleli Cobo led a coalition to permanently shut down a toxic oil-drilling site in her community in March 2020, at the age of 19—an oil site that caused serious health issues for her and others. Her continued organizing against urban oil extraction has now yielded major policy movement within both the Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which voted unanimously to ban new oil exploration and phase out of existing sites.

An oil bonanza without boundaries

In the 1890s, the new city of Los Angeles (with a population of 50,000) discovered some of the most productive oil fields in history. Few laws governed oil extraction, and rights were granted to those who could pull it out of the ground first. This oil rush ushered in a period of rampant drilling, with wells and machinery crisscrossing the landscape. Oil rigs were so pervasive across the city that the Los Angeles Times described them as “standing like trees in a forest.” By 1930, the city’s population had grown to 1.2 million, and California was producing nearly one quarter of the world’s oil output.

Oil wells in Los Angeles, California (Photo: Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize)

To this day, Los Angeles remains the largest urban oil field in the US. Thousands of active oil wells in the city are located amongst a dense population of more than 4 million (with many more wells throughout the county). Oil rigs dot the city but are often hidden by tall fences or structures, routinely located within low-income neighborhoods out of general view. The legacy of under-regulation means that the city required no buffers or setbacks between oil extraction and homes, and some 75% of wells are located within 1,700 feet of “sensitive land uses,” such as homes, schools, or parks. Some 580,000 residents live less than a quarter mile from an active well.

Meanwhile, many of the active oil wells in Los Angeles are in Latino and Black and neighborhoods—communities that have been particularly affected by pollution. Urban oil wells have been clearly linked to asthma and other health problems.

One drilling site in South Los Angeles operated by AllenCo Energy was discreetly located behind a building 30 feet from Nalleli Cobo’s home. The site spewed toxic fumes and odors regularly into the residential neighborhood of University Park. Nalleli and many others suffered from nosebleeds, headaches, and other serious health impacts.

A born leader

Nalleli, 20, grew up in South Los Angeles and launched her activism as a 9-year-old after noticing foul smells emanating from the oil well across the street from her home. Over the years, she endured headaches, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations caused by pollution from the well. She began attending meetings and rallies with her mother and, at the age of 9, gave her first public speech on the issue. Even as a child, her skills as an orator caught others’ attention and paved the way for her to eventually become the leading spokesperson for banning oil extraction in Los Angeles. She co-founded People not Pozos, which aims to secure safe and healthy neighborhoods, and the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, which focuses on environmental racism in the community. She is also a member of STAND-LA, a coalition of community groups seeking to end urban oil extraction and protect the health and safety of Los Angeles residents.

Nalleli Cobo stands in front of the closed AllenCo site (Photo: Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize)

A grassroots coalition

Together with her mother, Nalleli began walking door-to-door in 2011, distributing fliers about the dangers of oil extraction and documenting the rampant illnesses in the community caused by oil pollution. She mobilized her neighbors to report the foul chemical smells to officials and share their own stories at town halls and city council meetings. Her organizing resulted in the formation of People not Pozos, for which she became the spokesperson—despite being the group’s youngest member. As the community’s voice against oil pollution, she began speaking publicly at community events and rallies, testified at government meetings, and garnered press coverage and support from elected officials.

Soon, Nalleli filed complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, a partner organization, hired a toxicologist, who quickly confirmed that the air near the oil site was polluted. In response to the flood of negative attention, in 2013 AllenCo voluntarily suspended operations at the site, a move that was made permanent in 2020.

Meanwhile, in 2015, after co-founding the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Nalleli looked to expand her efforts and work toward phasing out oil sites across the city. The group sued the city of Los Angeles for environmental racism—specifically for disproportionately permitting oil drilling in Latino and Black communities. The successful lawsuit has helped pave the way for major city and county-wide policy changes on oil extraction.

Nalleli Cobo and allies (Photo: Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize)

In March 2020, Nalleli’s tireless organizing culminated in the definitive closure of the AllenCo drilling site across the street from her childhood home. In addition, thanks to her work, AllenCo executives are facing over 24 criminal charges for environmental health and safety violations. Moreover, Nalleli’s leadership spurred preliminary votes in the City Council in favor of banning oil extraction in the city in 2020, and, in September 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban new oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county and examine the status of existing ones.

Since she was a small child, Nalleli endured chronic headaches, intense nosebleeds, stomach pains, asthma, body spasms, and heart palpitations. She was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19. After three surgeries and medical treatment, she was declared cancer-free but cannot have children as a result of her illness. In the end, despite these obstacles (and perhaps driven by them), Nalleli led a citizens’ movement that shut an oil drilling site and initiated the process to phase out the largest urban oil field in the US.

How You Can Help

Support Nalleli’s fight for environmental justice and to end oil extraction in Los Angeles and other urban areas: