Slated for oil and natural gas excavation, the Beverly Hills West Facility (BHWF) is a drilling site adjacent to Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) and located over the Beverly Hills Oil Field. Owned and operated by Venoco Inc. since 1995, the BHWF occupies just over half an acre of land within Beverly Hills. Geographically located here, the BHWF’s sole derrick stands 150 feet tall and serves as a landmark to many in the surrounding communities.
The BHWF comprises nineteen total wells on-site: fifteen active producing wells (oil and natural gas), three active water injection wells (water flood), and one inactive water injection well. The wells measure between 7,000 and 8,500 feet below the facility surface.
Sustainability and Production
The BHWF poses challenges to sustainable development. Widely understood as “development that meets the needs of current populations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” sustainable development regarding energy tends to emphasize phasing out fossil fuels that increase greenhouse gas emissions, and relying instead upon renewable fuels which can mitigate climate change by emitting less greenhouse gases or none at all. Although oil and natural gas burn cleaner than coal in terms of greenhouse gases, oil and gas production still undermines sustainable energy development that seeks to mitigate climate change by eliminating emissions-intensive fossil fuels and transitioning to an energy economy of renewable fuels.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fossil fuel energy is responsible for 85% of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions, rendering extensive fossil fuel use incompatible with sustainable development. Thus, regardless of the BHWF’s production trends relative to national or global oil/gas production, the fact that the BHWF is producing oil and natural gas – quantity aside – implies that the site is contributing to overall fossil fuel usage. Consequently, the site is hindering effective sustainable development in America, where energy derived from the BHWF is occupying market shares that could otherwise be occupied by renewable energy.
Looking at the BHWF’s total production levels since 1980, the site has utilized 24,031,655 barrels of water to produce 8,590,400 barrels of oil, and 7,226,220 Mcf of natural gas. Since 1995, Venoco has overseen an average production rate of 13,800 barrels of oil per month and approximately 10,500 Mcf of natural gas per month. To put these numbers into perspective, examine national figures.
For instance, in July 2014 the BHWF produced an average of 270 barrels of oil per day. In the Bakken region, one of the country’s most productive and developed drilling areas, a rig produced an average of 510 barrels per day. Over the same period, the BHWF produced an average of 249 Mcf of natural gas per day. In the Bakken region, a rig produced an average of 519 Mcf of natural gas per day.
Impacts on Marginalized Group
BHWF’s proximity to BHHS, a public high school, makes it a viable candidate for an environmental justice analysis. Because high school students lack a political voice until they turn eighteen, students tend to be marginalized by the political system. Not only a problem in the US, youth marginalization due to lack of political power is a phenomenon observed globally. For instance, a research study conducted in the UK concluded children “did not have a say in the decisions made about them”. And, though it is “assumed that parents are motivated solely by a concern for the wellbeing of their children and that they are the best champions of children’s rights,” youth voices in American politics remain neglected because they cannot be expressed at voting polls. In the US, where politicians are “single-minded seekers of reelection,” policy-makers will appease the voters themselves, not the opinionated but vote-less youth. Thus, for the purposes of our ensuing analysis, we will examine how the BHWF impacts this already-marginalized group of public high school students.
Positive Economic Impact
- Venoco is required to pay standard taxes and royalties for access to mineral rights.
- In 2012, BHUSD received $640,000 in oil royalties from Venoco.
- Monies helped pay for teacher salaries, learning tools and resources, and school repairs.
Negative Health Impact
- Fossil fuel extraction can be a dirty process that creates human health problems.
- In 2003, a coalition of Beverly Hills parents and high school alumni filed suit against the city and school district claiming that permitting Venoco to drill next to the school had led to the development of cancer in former students.
- The University of Southern California conducted a study that concluded the BHWF had not directly caused a spike in cancer rates within BHHS alumni, though the findings also conceded that the analysis had inherent limitations and “risk among the alumni cannot be directly assessed”.
- This study was conducted without input, opinions, or data from current students, demonstrating how student voices pertaining to their own health are further marginalized as a result of the potential risks posed by the BHWF.
Negative Safety Impact
- Due to methane’s flammability, a natural gas leak can pose immediate safety risks.
- In 2005, Los Angeles MTA revived plans to construct a subway underneath BHHS.
- Beverly Hills parents and residents pressured the city to halt the project pending further safety analyses.
- The MTA concluded that tunneling was safe under BHHS throughout “gassy ground” and over fault lines.
- The MTA also conducted an environmental justice analysis, which neglected to investigate how the subway’s construction would affect BHHS students, but instead focused on the subway’s impact on traditional subjects of environmental justice studies: racial minorities and low-income populations.
- These MTA reports demonstrate, through omission of student input and consideration, how student voices are neglected throughout the entire decision-making process regarding subway construction related to BHWF well safety.
Effectively, the MTA findings, which promote the safety of tunneling through “gassy ground,” coupled with the USC study, underscore how the BHWF perpetuates the marginalization of youth voices in the political discourse surrounding their health and safety, categorizing the site as environmentally unjust.
Broader Context with Theoretical Analysis
Once thought of as a wartime necessity in Los Angeles during World War II, urban oil drilling is facing increased opposition in LA- where it is transitioning from a source of national pride into a burdensome nuisance. To appease the growing opposition to drilling amongst residents, the Beverly Hills City Council enacted a ban of drilling activities within Beverly Hills beginning in 2017. While this move may seem surprising to some, it is an accurate representation of sentiments expressed within Beverly Hills and beyond. For instance, an April 2014 Gallup poll assessed that generally, Americans now prefer developing alternative energy sources instead of traditional fossil fuel sources, implying a desire to move away from fossil fuel extraction.
So, why is this all happening? One way to understand both the sustainability and justice issues is by examining the foundations of various theoretical explanations of environmental justice. For instance, in this case, one might point to the resource curse to explain how public high school students are further marginalized by the BHWF. While traditional understandings of the resource curse would predict that an area or population would suffer economically from having rich natural resources, in this case, the population (students) suffers political marginalization by being neglected in any decision-making process regarding their own health and safety. Thus, the resource curse adopts Perdue and Pavela’s (2012) definition, which stipulates that resource-rich areas can suffer from both negative economic and social outcomes.
Additionally, one could apply Mohai et al.’s second causal explanation for environmental disamenities, known as the sociopolitical explanation. Fundamentally, this theory assumes firms operate under the coercive laws of competition, which can lead to sustainability issues as firms ramp up production (in this case, oil, an unsustainable resource) to return higher profits, expand, and increase market shares. With that assumption in mind, Mohai et al.’s theory offers that firms such as Venoco will operate in areas with high populations of marginalized communities in order to avoid organized and powerful resistance movements to the firm’s operations, which could decrease production and consequent competitiveness in capitalist markets. In other words, Venoco operates the BHWF because it believes students have less organizational capacity to build a NIMBY or resistance movement to the rig, due to their status as a politically marginalized group.
Though traditional thinking about energy relies heavily on the economic impacts of resource extraction, the BHWF narrative demonstrates how political and social impacts should be accounted for when trying to understand the complexities of the changing American energy landscape. In order to make more informed choices regarding future energy-related decisions, it is imperative that we as a society look beyond financial benefits and begin to understand broader implications of energy extraction and consumption.
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