The Deadly Consequences of Urban Oil Drilling
When Nalleli Cobo got her first MRI, the nurse told her it would be a picture of her brain. She was alone in a hospital gown in the scanner, imagining high-tech photos of her thought bubbles and quietly panicking. “You cannot think of Justin Bieber!” Cobo warned herself. Instead, she practiced concentrating on the smell of the AllenCo oil plant she lived next to—along with her headaches, stomach pain, heart palpitations, nosebleeds, and body spasms—so that the doctor would see what was really happening. She was 10 years old, and already aware of the devastating effects of urban oil drilling.
The story of University Park, the South Los Angeles neighborhood where Cobo grew up, echoes that of districts across the United States: St. John the Baptist Parish, La.; Laredo, Tex.; Laurel, Miss. All are predominantly Black or Latinx communities, all are low-income, and all are sites of environmental racism, where corporations profit from industrial air pollution that kills. St. John Parish, the majority Black county in an 85-mile stretch of land unaffectionately nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for its unnaturally high levels of cancer diagnoses, is home to a manufacturing plant that emits neoprene, a carcinogen that causes nosebleeds, headaches, and tachycardia along with cancer. Industrial plants in Laredo and Laurel increase the risk of cancer to 18 times and 39 times the EPA’s acceptable levels, respectively. And Los Angeles is the single largest urban oil field in the nation, with 3.2 million of its residents living within a quarter mile of an active or idle oil or gas well.
For years, residents of these states, Cobo included, have been organizing for clean air and health protections. In 2021, a regional victory became a flash of national hope when Los Angeles pledged to ban new oil drilling and phase out existing wells. Last month, California’s state legislature channeled that momentum into SB 1137, a bill establishing “health protection” buffer zones between oil extraction and sensitive land—including homes, schools, parks, and health care facilities.
“We haven’t crossed the finish line—it’s a lot of work we still have to do, holding officials accountable, [but] now it’s on our horizon,” Cobo told The Nation. Beginning in January, all oil well rework permits within protected zones will be denied, slowly phasing out neighborhood oil drilling in California. “I have been dreaming of this day for over a decade,” the 21-year-old wrote on Instagram.
In 2010, a 9-year-old Cobo, her mother, Monic Uriarte, and three of their neighbors cofounded People Not Pozos (pozos is Spanish for “wells”) to demand protections against Big Oil’s pollution in University Park. The group met in the basement of their affordable housing complex—parents and grandparents, a great-grandma, and Nalleli. Together, they organized community meetings, testified at government hearings, filed official complaints with state regulators, and mobilized to shut down the AllenCo plant.
It was sharing labor across generations that made these actions possible. Uriarte, who worked two jobs at the time, would print out articles on oil extraction for Nalleli, who would read them carefully after school. “[I had to] educate myself and become an expert, because nobody was coming to our community and saying, ‘You live next to an oil well. You should know the health and safety risks.’ So we did that,” Cobo said.
The mother-daughter duo would knock on doors together (in the last decade they’ve knocked on over 1,700) and distribute fliers about the health effects of AllenCo’s pollution, documenting the prevalence of illness and encouraging neighbors to join the movement to shut down the well. When Uriarte was advised over the phone by South Coast Air Quality Management that at least nine other households needed to call with complaints within the hour for an officer to be dispatched, Nalleli ran out of the apartment. She knocked on one door, came back home (to say “Mom, I did it, she’s gonna call!”), and then left to get eight more.
“Because of [our] intergenerational knowledge…I was able to focus on [describing] my symptoms—how sick I felt on a day to day basis—and my mom could talk about the safety issues…of the [well’s] valves, and [risk of] explosion,” Cobo explained. Other adults pitched in by looking after the children of people presenting on city hall meeting days. When we welcome everyone to bring what they can to the table, she says, “see how full the table is now?”
That the cofounders of People Not Pozos spanned four generations is remarkable, and this background remains a driving force of Cobo’s advocacy. “We the youth don’t know everything. And the elders themselves don’t know everything. That’s why it’s so important that we work as an intergenerational team. Our knowledge together is where the strength is…It takes a movement, it takes unity. That’s what activism is, bringing people together to create change,” she said.
In 2013, after years of strategic coalition-building, People Not Pozos and STAND-L.A., an environmental justice coalition in Los Angeles, successfully pressured AllenCo—which neighbored not only Nalleli’s building but also a day care, a senior living facility, and a high school for students with disabilities—to suspend operations. Two years after that, Cobo cofounded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, sued the City of Los Angeles for environmental racism, and eventually won. At 16 years old, she met Senator Bernie Sanders, who visited South LA to denounce urban oil drilling (and who joked to Nalleli that he was still looking for a vice president). At 19, she celebrated the permanent shutdown of AllenCo by the state. And this year, at 21, she was honored as one of “Time’s 100 Next” just months after winning the prestigious Goldman Award.
These public recognitions are the result of more than a decade of unsung grassroots activism. They’re also a reflection of the firm establishment of youth as the symbolic leaders of the contemporary climate justice movement, despite the odds. “I have had my share of backlash, especially when I was so young,” Cobo said. “I would have people come up to me and say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ or ‘you should be in school, sweetie,’ or ‘leave this to the grown-ups.’ I went from being the only youth in the room to being one of many. And that’s powerful. [It means] our stories and our voices are enough.”
In 1992, a 12-year-old environmental activist named Severn Suzuki spoke at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She described to the audience how she used to go fishing in Vancouver, but that now the fish were ravaged by cancer; how she was afraid to breathe polluted air; and that she feared her children would not recognize butterflies, or rain forests. “I am here to speak for all generations to come,” she said.
In 2018, we relived this moment on an international scale with Greta Thunberg, the passionate teenager who shook the world with her clarity and commitment. And now, some of the most influential climate activism coalitions—Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, and the Youth Climate Movement—are youth-created and youth-led organizations that have secured a place for young people in environmental leadership. Like Cobo, they are the embodiment of the future that politicians have conjured in their speeches for years—the living, breathing, generation that has everything to lose should we not act on the climate crisis now. And because they are that now, they flip the decades-old script on climate change action as located in, and necessary for, the future. From Obama to Macron to Biden, elected officials have evoked imagined “children” and “grandchildren” in their discussions of the climate crisis over and over again.
The trouble with locating the effects of the climate crisis in the future alone is that doing so can erase the many for whom the end of the world has already happened. In Pakistan, over 1,000 deaths have been reported as a result of unprecedented floods this summer. More than 33 million people have been displaced. In Puerto Rico, at least 25 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Fiona. Yes, we should fight for our grandchildren, but there are millions of people here—of all ages—that we need to be fighting for. Now, and yesterday. Recognizing how climate change collapses time only increases the need for urgency.
When Cobo thinks about environmental disaster, she thinks about her past, too, and the childhood that has been lost. As a kid, she couldn’t roller skate outside because of toxic fumes. She lived with the windows closed, spent weekends begging to not be poisoned instead of playing sports or with Barbies. She slept sitting up, so as to not choke on the blood from her nosebleeds. When she did play with dolls, she would give them inhaler puffs, because that’s how her mom cared for her. “It’s not just in the future, it’s now,” she told The Nation. “But [elected officials] don’t know that because they’re not in our communities, they’re not talking to us, they’re not listening.… We’ve seen people pass because of this—we’ve seen people lose huge parts of their lives.”
By the time Cobo was diagnosed with cancer at 19—after living next to an oil plant that emitted carcinogenic fumes—she had already seen her mother and grandmother develop asthma from the plant. Now, she is cancer-free, but has lost six organs, 20 lymph nodes, and the ability to carry a child. “All stages of life are being impacted, beginning to end,” she said in a speech at the Raizado Festival last month.
There, she welcomed the crowd into not just her life but also her vision. “I’m going to ask a question, and feel free to shout out your answers,” she began. “What do you think belongs in a community?” Responses came in tentatively at first, and then loudly and all at once. Schools. Trees. People. Water. Dancing. Parks. Art.
For Cobo, work won’t be done until LA runs on renewable energy and there’s not a single child growing up next to an oil or gas well. This November, she and Uriarte are attending the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change in Egypt. After that, the goal is to meet with Biden. “I think I would simply ask if [he] thinks I deserve to breathe clean air,” she says, practicing to meet the president on our Zoom call. During the 2020 election, the president vowed to ban new drilling on public land. For 2023, however, domestic oil production is expected to hit a record high. “Just that…because that’s not what his policies are representing. He has the power [to halt oil drilling on federal land], and the obligation. So how come he hasn’t done it?”