These days, conversations around oil often lead back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia is, after all, one of the world’s top exporters of petroleum products. And the ongoing war is affecting all of us—through increased gas prices and supply chain issues.
However, there’s a different sort of war happening in Los Angeles that’s affecting all of us, too. And this conflict also involves oil—except that, this time, the fossil fuel industry is the attacker. The victims? The predominantly Black and Brown L.A. residents who can’t escape the air pollution the industry pumps into their backyards. And just as Russia is killing innocent Ukraininans, the fossil fuel sector is ending lives too soon in L.A. It’s also contributing to the Earth’s heating, which is on course to screw us all.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we stand against the slow violence of the fossil fuel industry. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Los Angeles is home to one of the largest oil fields in America. In January, the city finally decided to end oil drilling. The decision was a victory for all the moms, neighbors, and advocates who organized for years in an attempt to protect community health. There’s one young woman, in particular, who deserves a special round of applause for her perseverance and dedication to her community—even when her own health was faltering.
Nalleli Cobo was only nine years old when she began speaking out against the fossil fuel sector. She grew up in the University Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. By the end of 2010, however, the air in her hood grew noxious—it’d smell like rotten eggs one day and gas the next. Cobo and her mom, Monic Uriarte, knew something was wrong, so they went door to door asking their neighbors to call their local gas company. In a week, they pulled in over 350 complaints.
“[My activism] started at the age of nine out of survival,” said Cobo, who’s now 21 and the cofounder of the campaign People Not Pozos, which translates to people, not wells. “It was never really about me. It was we. It was us as a whole.”
It turned out that AllenCo Energy, which operated an oil production facility and 21 wells in L.A., had experienced a gas leak. Cobo’s community is made up mostly of Latine immigrants who migrated from Mexico and Central America. Research has found that Black and Latine communities see higher levels of oil drilling and pollution likely a result of racist housing policies that started in the 1930s known as redlining.
That doesn’t mean that Cobo and her people were going to accept this injustice. She and a coalition of L.A. organizers rallied against AllenCo—and the greater oil and gas presence in their city. Alongside groups such as Esperanza Community Housing, Cobo and her mom started to develop their own health surveys, attend town hearings, and speak out until they couldn’t be ignored any longer. In 2020, the city finally shut down the facility. A year later, city officials voted to get rid of all oil and gas drilling. Los Angeles is the latest city to kick out fossil fuel players—a process that’ll span over five years.
“It was really hard work from all of us,” said Uriarte in Spanish. She migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1992. “We learned so much as a community—how complicated it is to pass policy but also that we can’t stop putting pressure.”
Across the globe, communities are awakening to the power they hold. They’re realizing that the people in power won’t take action without pressure. Los Angeles won’t be the last city to ban oil and gas drilling. It can’t be—and communities elsewhere won’t let it. This is a change that needs to happen worldwide if we’re going to prevent climate collapse. The fossil fuel industry isn’t only exacerbating the climate crisis, after all; it’s also harming people’s health in ways they are feeling now.
Look at Cobo. Back when she’d go door to door, she was already suffering from headaches and nosebleeds. When she turned 19, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer that attacked her reproductive system. Cobo is cancer free right now, but she lives with chronic pain. And, still, she fights—not only for her future but for the future of others whose lives are at the mercy of an industry too preoccupied with profit to worry about the lives it’s injuring.
All of Cobo’s hard work has landed her among some of the world’s most honored environmental activists. On Wednesday, she was awarded the Goldman Prize, which celebrates environmental activists from around the world who have seen victory. The world of eco-activism is not easy. Convincing legislators or private companies to give a damn about the planet or public health is grueling and often heart-breaking work. When someone actually manages to succeed, that’s cause for celebration.
“This award has the ability to share my community’s story and our efforts on an international scale,” Cobo said. “I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”
And there’s plenty of work ahead. Cobo has been working with Aradhna Tripati, a professor and director of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at the University of California at Los Angeles to develop a research program where the community can learn the tools to advocate for itself.
“Our model is one of community-led research, community-owned and -managed research,” Tripati said. “It lets the expertise of our community partners shine.”
“It was never really about me. It was we. It was us as a whole.”
The program has already been teaching both youth and community health workers in the community GIS, which is a system used to analyze geographic data especially within maps. Patricia Vargas is an incoming community health worker, or promotora, with Esperanza Community Housing. The COVID-19 pandemic drew her into the organizing work, and she’s excited to see what can come of the new skills she and her colleagues are learning.
“As community organizers, it’s important to have this type of knowledge because we can help more people to explore these issues, too,” Vargas said in Spanish. “A map is great because it shows you the problems by region and zip codes.”
Vargas feels responsible now for the well-being of her community. And she wants to continue to contribute—whether that’s through creating awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine or of the oil and gas industry’s presence. For Joshua Orona, a teen volunteer with Esperanza Community Health, the GIS skills have allowed him to view his L.A. community in a new way. Sure, some things about the city are great—but the health risks aren’t. He dreams of using the software to look at geographic patterns beyond L.A. There’s all of the U.S. to explore.
Still, he’s got a long fight ahead of him until taking that step. Like Cobo, Orona has been afflicted by cancer. The 17-year-old is still fighting his leukemia. He overcame it once when he was 11, but it’s come back. That doesn’t mean his dreams are on pause. He wants to go into the medical field and serve patients just as his doctors have served him.
“I really love to help others,” Orona said. “I’ve seen that helping others has a great impact. It’s something rewarding.”
He’s really enjoyed working alongside Cobo and appreciates her optimism. Optimism doesn’t even feel sufficient to describe Cobo’s attitude. She dreams big regardless of what she’s had to survive. When I ask her what’s next after this award, she’s clear. “Staying cancer free and happy and healthy,” she said—but she won’t stop dreaming there.
Cobo is studying political science and plans to become a civil rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. From there, she will explore politics and eventually run for president in 2036. Who knows what sort of planet we’ll face then, but if we have Cobo as a leader, we’ll be able to overcome whatever climate disaster comes our way. And best believe: the fossil fuel industry will pay. Cobo will make sure of it.