By Alex Nagy
Carson resident Dianne Thomas, right, rallies against Occidental Petroleum on March 15, 2014 in Sacramento, CA
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”), last week 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 the Carousel Tract 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 rep 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 temporary 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.
Next, OXY invested in an elaborate astroturf campaign with the building and construction and electrical trade unions. Four buses full of union rank and file showed up from Pasadena, Bakersfield and beyond with shirts, buttons, stickers and signs, demanding “Jobs for Carson.” Carson High School kids attended the hearing, and we watched men in suits hand them VISA gift cards. The ban extension went down 2-2-1. But the defeat galvanized both the residents and the California anti-fracking movement watching via live stream.
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 200 well project would net a profit.
When OXY moved its headquarters to Houston, the newly formed California Resources Corp. picked up Oxy’s projects in the State. On January 26, 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.
Carson residents, like my friend Dianne Thomas, know they are part of a bigger movement. Dianne will speak at the March for Real Climate Leadership in Governor Jerry Brown’s town, Oakland, on February 7. It’s time to make this personal, and Brown needs to hear from people like Dianne who have been directly affected by his close ties with the oil industry. Thousands will march to urge Brown to be a real climate leader – someone who stands on the right side of history with Dianne and California’s communities – by banning fracking and standing up, like Carson did, to Big Oil.
Alex Nagy is a Southern California Organizer for Food & Water Watch.