Oil drilling in Hermosa Beach: déjà vu all over again?

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: An oil drilling measure on the ballot divides an affluent coastal community along Santa Monica Bay. Supporters of drilling promise millions to the community for police, fire, and public works services. A fortune is spent on the campaign. Passionate grassroots volunteers walk door to door in opposition of drilling along the coast and opening up Santa Monica Bay to further oil drilling. The outcome of a citywide ballot--Measure O--decides the fate of the oil drilling measure.

playadelrey.jpgI'm talking about Measure O in Hermosa Beach--which is on the ballot on March 3rd and will decide the fate of the "slant-drilling" project proposed by E&B Resources Management Corporation to tap oil under Santa Monica Bay.

But I'm also describing another Measure O, which was on the ballot in November 1988 citywide in LA. That measure made new drilling within 1,000 yards of any city of Los Angeles beach illegal and stopped the Occidental Petroleum Corporation from drilling up to 60 wells just east of the PCH across from Will Rogers Beach. Then councilmembers Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude sponsored the measure, which was also supported by then state controller Gray Davis. Measure O galvanized opposition to oil drilling in Santa Monica Bay, but the vote was still close. It passed with 52.3 percent of the vote.

A "yes" vote on the current Measure O in Hermosa Beach will allow E&B to drill up to 34 oil and gas wells to tap oil under Santa Monica using directional or "slant drilling" from the city's 6th Street city yard. The wells could be active for up to 34 years. And Hermosa Beach would receive 15.33 percent of the proceeds from the gross sale of produced oil.

A "no" vote will stop the project, but the city will have to compensate E&B to the tune of $17.5 million, the result of protracted litigation that ended with a settlement letting the voter's decide the fate of the project, but at a substantial financial cost (stemming from E&B's buyout of former oil developer, MacPherson Oil).

Hermosa Beach Mayor pro-tem Nanette Barragan recently hosted an event at the Hermosa Beach Community Center to rally opposition to the slant-drilling project. Bobby Kennedy Jr. kicked off the event with a rousing speech to around 250 residents. Kennedy grounded his remarks in the history and importance of the public trust doctrine, which is meant to protect everyone's rights to clean water and healthy rivers and oceans. And he emphasized that the project's 12 percent risk of an oil spill is too big of a risk to take considering the potential public health, environmental, and economic consequences.

Kennedy is a hard act to follow--he got a standing ovation from the crowd--and Ed Begley, the environmental conscience of the entertainment industry, is a tough act to precede. Begley closed the event on a light personal note. Between the two, I moderated a panel of environmental experts discussing Measure O and the potential risks of the slant-drilling project, including Damon Nagami, a a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay vice president and marine biologist Sarah Sikich, Surfrider Foundation CEO and economist Chad Nelsen, and Phillip Kingston, a Dallas city councilmember.

Kinsgton described a successful ordinance that he wrote prohibiting all new oil drilling and fracking within 1,500 feet of any residence in Dallas. In Hermosa Beach, E&B's slant-drilling project would be within 150 feet of some residents and 100 feet of some businesses.

The California Coastal Sanctuaries Act of 1994 prohibits new oil and gas leases in "all state waters subject to tidal influence." But as Nagami and Sikich explained, the prohibition does not apply in Hermosa Beach.

Hermosa Beach banned oil drilling in the 1930s, when many LA beaches were thick with oil derricks, but the city lifted the ban in the 1980s.

Hermosa Beach residents have 10 more days to contemplate the future of their beach town and the Santa Monica Bay.

Whatever they decide it may feel like déjà vu all over again. The question is which version of the past do they want to see come back?

Photo of oil derricks on nearby Playa del Rey in the early 20th century, USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

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