Oil, gas wells concentrate in redlined neighborhoods, UC Berkeley study finds

Photo of an oil well
Tim Evanson/Creative Commons
Methane and benzene are two substances released from wells that pose health risks to surrounding communities. Photo by Tim Evanson under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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A study from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, led by David Gonzalez, a fellow in the President’s Postdoctoral Program, found that oil and gas wells are disproportionately concentrated in redlined neighborhoods.

Gonzalez was compelled to begin this research project after leading several studies on how oil and gas wells affect public health in California. In a previous study, Gonzalez found that many Black and Latine people are more likely to live close to oil wells. This result guided him to an interest in redlining, and how it interacts with environmental and social inequalities.

“I hope this evidence will help policymakers understand the disproportionate impact of oil and gas wells on communities of color,” Gonzalez said.

According to the press release, redlining is a practice that designates certain areas within a district as “risky” places to invest in. These places often have a higher population of people of color, and subsequently necessary public services are withheld from them. This practice stunts homeownership rates, access to public resources and overall economic development. 

In order to determine whether there was a correlation between redlined neighborhoods and an increased presence of oil and gas wells, this study looked at maps created by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, in the 1930s and ’40s. It found that districts largely composed of Black and Latine communities were less likely to receive a favorable rating from HOLC, and therefore less likely to receive outside investment.

“Oil and gas wells cause air and water pollution, noise and a range of health issues,” Gonzalez said. “It’s harmful to have these things in neighborhoods, even when they’ve been plugged off for a long time.”

There is also emerging evidence that plugged wells can emit a number of harmful chemicals, Gonzalez said. The harmful greenhouse gas methane is likely released from plugged wells. Additionally, the wells can emit benzene, a carcinogen that can cause cancer. These wells and the chemicals they release, the evidence suggests, pose severe health risks to the communities in which they are situated.

Additionally, the study found that even before certain neighborhoods were redlined, they had an increased number of oil and gas wells in comparison to surrounding areas.

Gonzalez also noted the real-world implications of this study. In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced a draft policy that would create more distance between oil wells and residential areas.

“I’m Mexican American,” Gonzalez said. “I learned, through this study, that my grandpa grew up in a redlined neighborhood in Los Angeles with oil wells. That added even more importance to understanding the processes that affected generations of families like this.”

Contact Grace Nelligan at [email protected].