In a testament to the power of organized and tenacious people, residents of Carson, California, claimed victory over an oil giant’s big money bullying. After a three-year battle, California Resources Corp., formerly Occidental Petroleum (“OXY”), pulled its proposal for 200 new frackable wells in the Los Angeles County community.
When OXY swaggered into town in 2012, it thought Carson was an easy target. But residents were no strangers to oil and gas industry greed and haste. Not too long before, residents discovered a buried Shell Oil Co. storage tanker underneath a neighborhood, leaking benzene and other carcinogens into the soil. Shell dodged responsibility for six years before settling for $90 million, but some residents still live with cancer.
So, Carson residents smelled a rat from the start with OXY. But that didn’t faze the second-largest oil producer in the state. In the first face-to-face with residents, the company’s representative shrugged off the community’s concerns about public health and the environment; then, he enthusiastically disclosed that the new wells would be fracked. That’s when residents vowed to fight to keep OXY out of their town.
So OXY stepped up its game.
OXY Gets Ugly, But Residents Aren’t Fooled
In response to public outcry, OXY promised in an open letter not to frack – unless the company deemed it necessary. Not fooled, hundreds flooded public hearings in protest and OXY feared for its bottom line. Resistance costs companies money.
In March 2014, residents won a 45-day ban – approved unanimously by the City Council – on all oil and gas drilling. OXY’s stock dropped by 4 percent as a result, and even though it had just announced plans to move its corporate headquarters out of California, OXY called in a favor.
When Carson City Council reconvened in April to vote for an extension of the 45-day ban, OXY asked Governor Jerry Brown – whose campaigns have been well-financed by the industry – to make a personal phone call to Carson Mayor Jim Dear.
Though Dear had supported the ban, Brown persuaded him to side with OXY and split the council votes needed to keep the ban in place.
Weeks later OXY tried to fool residents with a fake fracking ban. The company worked with Mayor Dear, who introduced to Council an ordinance to “ban” fracking … unless approved by the City Engineer. Thankfully, our champions, Councilmembers Lula Davis-Holmes and Albert Robles, refused to tolerate the glaring loophole, and helped defeat the disingenuous ban. They moved instead to update the city’s antiquated oil and gas code.
When public meetings on the oil and gas code resumed in August, the city made OXY cover the costs of the consulting firm hired to update the code. Around this time the price of oil started to plummet. By January, the industry could no longer be assured that the project would net a profit. Within a few months, we learned the company had dropped its proposal in Carson.
But The Fight Isn’t Over
The market was the final nail in the coffin. But, if the residents hadn’t fought from the start, OXY would be drilling there now. Carson residents can proudly claim this victory, but it’s also clear that the fight isn’t over.
When the price of oil goes back up, the industry will shuffle back to Carson. The oil and gas zoning code update is still Carson’s winning ticket. The city can use it to protect residents by banning all extreme oil and gas extraction and enacting setbacks from homes and schools that make it undesirable for the industry to ever come back.
People power can really defeat money power. Carson reminds me not to give up hope even when the chips were down. We must fight on.