STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. Forget about that controversy over offshore drilling. How about drilling for oil in your neighborhood or in your backyard?
Los Angeles is thinking about just that. Oil fields are not new in L.A., but the high price of crude means there soon may be a lot more oil wells. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: From the hilltop where I'm standing, I'm surrounded by pump jacks bobbing up and down, sucking oil out of the ground. It's like a scene straight out of West Texas, except it's in the middle of urban Los Angeles.
Mr. JOHN MARTINI (PXP): What we have is a world-class oil field sitting below a world-class city.
DEL BARCO: John Martini is manager of governmental affairs for Plains Exploration and Production, or PXP. The Texas oil company does extensive drilling here in what's known as the Englewood Oil Fields. Now the company is seeking government approval to tap as many as 50 new or existing wells a year for the next 20 years.
Mr. MARTINI: Because there's more oil there, and more oil means less oil we have to import. It's always been PXP's plans to drill more wells there.
DEL BARCO: Last year, L.A. County had 3,400 wells in operation. Experts say as the price of oil climbs, speculators are interested in drilling new wells and tapping old ones throughout the Los Angeles area.
Mr. IRAJ ERSHAGHI (University of Southern California): There's plenty of oil over here.
DEL BARCO: Iraj Ershaghi is director of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California. He says only about a third of L.A.'s available oil has been recovered, but new drilling technology can change that.
Mr. ERSHAGHI: We have produced nine billion barrels, nine billion with a B. That means you've got 18 billion barrels left right here, and...
DEL BARCO: Right here in Los Angeles.
Mr. ERSHAGHI: Right here in the Los Angeles area.
DEL BARCO: Ershaghi says the L.A. Basin is one of the richest oil regions in the world. Before the urban sprawl, drilling rigs dotted the landscape. Even today, Ershaghi says, there are active oil wells in some unlikely locations.
Mr. ERSHAGHI: If you go to Beverly Hills High School, you see an oil well right on the campus. If you go to Century City, you see that beautifully decorated rig. They put flowers around this so it matches the building. That's a very unusual place.
DEL BARCO: But many of L.A.'s oil operations have been controversial. In 2003, 12 former students at Beverly Hills High School sued a collection of oil companies, claiming that drilling on campus had caused cancer and other diseases.
A lower court dismissed the case for lack of evidence, but the ex-students have appealed. Now people living near the Englewood oil fields are protesting PXP's plan to increase production.
Ms. LARK GALLOWAY GILLIAM(ph) (Community Health Council): Smell it right now? You've got to wonder: What are breathing?
DEL BARCO: Lark Galloway Gilliam lives down the hill from the Englewood oil field. As executive director of the Community Health Council, she and hundreds of residents are asking for more environmental reviews and safeguards before PXP gets the green light to expand to as many as 1,000 new wells.
Ms. GILLIAM: My mother, I grew up here, and she died at a very early age to cancer. I saw another four people on my block died of cancer. Now, we don't know, and of course the science is not there to make the link between what's happening in this field and cancer, but you wonder.
DEL BARCO: Two years ago, residents in nearby Culver City evacuated their homes one night after a mysterious gas leak, prompting PXP to voluntarily shut down their operations until the county finishes an environmental review.
Mr. STEVE RUSH (PXP): PXP fully intends to keep going until the oil runs out, but it may be 50 years from now.
DEL BARCO: PXP vice president Steve Rush says oil has been produced in the Englewood field safely for the past 84 years, and he says the company has paused its drilling long enough.
Mr. RUSH: What we're saying is, look, we need to operate harmoniously with our neighbors, and we're willing to subject ourselves to more regulations, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, so pass it. Let's go.
DEL BARCO: But that doesn't go over well with residents who've been packing public hearings, even those who get monthly checks from oil pulled from their property, people like Bernard Rollins(ph).
Mr. BERNARD ROLLINS: I'm one of those persons who gets royalties from them, but I don't think those royalties are - you know, they can't buy my soul, I mean, for a few hundred dollars a year.
DEL BARCO: Rollins says he doesn't trust the oil company's promises. In fact, he proposes a complete moratorium on oil drilling here.
Mr. ROLLINS: I mean, everyone is in a panic because prices are going up, but I don't think that, you know, resurrecting these wells is the answer. I think it has to be a point where we say no, oil is over.
DEL BARCO: This fall, county officials will decide whether to allow more oil production in this part of Los Angeles. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.