There’s Oil Stirring in Hermosa Beach
These are the days when man has his hands on the sublime while he is up to his hips in the muck of madness. —Saul Alinsky
Los Angeles is the twilight holdout of all the promises the Baby Boomers made. ‘Go for it, man,’ is the force behind every ambition. The people I meet all own businesses, work three jobs, play in a band, write, love living in the sunshine and the coastal breeze. Everyone is untouchable. Everyone assures me this is Paradise.
I arrived little over a month ago to chase wild dreams and flee the bureaucratic hell of Washington, D.C. For two weeks I raced my small silver Subaru 3000 miles from my rental in the H Street Corridor to my new digs in the San Fernando Valley. And so long; D.C. is for the delusional, the dreamers of a different dream, enticed still by the dying promises of Reagan’s era. Out here, you can watch the sun set over the degeneration of that fading era, replaced by hazy and tentative skies and a new generation of blind and asthmatic babes.
On a clear morning I can see the Aliso Canyon ridge from the front yard. Otherwise, a brownish haze obscures the details and bleeds into empty blue sky. Bold men shatter the earth underneath that ridge with the shiniest of technologies — fracking and acidizing — and pray the toxic aftermath doesn’t spill down the ridge into the valley basin and homes below. At night you can see their rigs topped with fire, flaring methane, while driving north on the 405. Their industry has seen a great boom in recent years, and the rush to scrape the Great American Energy Barrel dry has come en force to Los Angeles.
The sprawling city owes its beginnings to oil. But it wasn’t until around 2005, and more so in the last two or three years, new technologies opened up the last greasy bits locked deep inside the shale layers. A wave of energy companies rolled back over Los Angeles and its outlying coastal towns, looking one-by-one to reawaken wells they’ve not forgotten.
“Let’s be hard on the issues, and easy on the people,” Tom Bakaly cautions. The date is 23 September 2013 and Tom is the new city manager of Hermosa Beach. He’s shifting clumsily around the stage of the Hermosa Beach Community Theatre, as though waiting for the first stone to be thrown. I’ve been told the last meeting was a bloodbath.
Hermosa Beach is a pleasant seaside community whose people have been locked in a bitter struggle against oil men for the better part of the last century. Since the first discovery of oil in the South Bay in 1921, Hermosans watched their neighbor cities sell their souls for black crude. At first she resisted oil development, passed a No-Drilling Ordinance in ’32. But the oil men returned to Hermosa in the 1950s and, in the night, bought the mineral rights underneath property owners’ homes. The oil men knew someday the ban would fall if they only waited out the collective memory of the people. Bandini, Shell, Continental, MacPherson and E&B Oil have all had a turn crooning the one-point-three square mile city closer to industrial oil extraction.
The ban fell in ’84. MacPherson secured the drilling rights, and waited for the city zoning ordinance to change. But in 1995, voters once again raised the ban, and MacPherson sued. E&B later bought the drilling project rights from MacPherson and, in settling the multimillion-dollar lawsuit with the city, gave the city a choice — pay the vultures 17.5 million now and they’ll leave, or pay 3.5 and let them drill. The city negotiated the deal without voter input, and so, in an attempt to placate concerns, the city and E&B promised to commission three studies on the health impacts, costs and benefits to the city, and the environmental impacts that may all result from drilling in a dense residential area. Now the city is halfway through the third act in E&B’s play for Hermosa’s oil.
So, tonight, Tom Bakaly introduces tense, toe-tapping, throat-clearing residents to the consultants hired to conduct the cost-benefit and health impact analyses.
It all sounds like sloppy rhetoric from the start. Tom insists several times he’s a ‘finance guy’ and a ‘concerned citizen,’ implying that he cares about the health of Hermosans, but that there is money to be made from oil, maybe. Early he admits he didn’t, until recently, understand that there were two different oil companies involved in the project. If he seemed the perfect man for this job, it is because he is bumbling and confusing. He diffuses anger, because you’re not sure if your anger is best placed in him. Tom doesn’t seem to know anything about what’s going on. “Well it’s my understanding…” is the beginning of his every sentence. And while the minutes tick away, people shift restlessly, waiting for the moment they can have a microphone.
McDaniel Lambert and Kosmont Companies, the health and financial consultant firms respectively, are even more baffling. Mary McDaniel admits during her Q&A that she’s never done a follow-up on any of her projects to see the outcomes through. She also admits the base-line air quality indicators she will use in her study will come not from Hermosa Beach, but from air monitoring terminals in West LA and next to the LAX. Using air monitoring in Hermosa Beach is something she will consider, she says, when it is brought to her attention.
Larry Kosmont begins his presentation by giving a sixth-grade lesson on how city finances work. I lose him halfway through —it’s monotonous and boring right down to the PowerPoint. I spoke to a native real estate agent afterward who referred to it as shockingly condescending — “They tried to give us a lecture on managing city finances? We aren’t the ones who settled with an oil company!”
The whole night feels condescending. In light of methane leaks and evacuations in Hawthorne and the Figueroa Corridor this week, and all the horror stories from back East, many Hermosans know there is cause for alarm. Weeks ago the city tried selling a message of ‘out-of-control budgets’, which backfired. The city already has six million set aside to give E&B, and, though they haven’t mentioned it, about 35 million in bonds. Tom admitted tonight the city wouldn’t bankrupt over paying the 17.5 million.
People line up at the mics, choosing to skip a fifteen minute break Tom offered.
‘Are we still pretending city council is neutral?’ a young agitator asks. Murmurs of agreement follow.
‘The example study you gave on health impacts was for a retirement community. That has nothing to do with an oil drilling project in a residential area!’ another comments.
‘You know, I’m hearing a whole lot of negative bias here against the project, how about some positives?’ says a ‘CEO.’ He leaves almost immediately after he comments.
And so on.
Mostly, people want answers. That’s not what this is about. It is just procedure. Another attempt for ‘discussion’, as Tom refers to it. I didn’t witness a discussion. But if the people didn’t show, it is entirely possible their concerns wouldn’t make it into either the cost-benefit analysis or the health impact assessment. At least now they have record.
E&B is intent on staying. They’ve hired PR consultants from the community, bought houses in affluent Hermosa Beach neighborhoods, and have thrown shindigs for the prominent folks. Nanette Barragan, a candidate for November’s city council race, mentioned the other candidates approached her with a pledge to not talk about the oil project during the race. She refused, and stands as the only candidate with a position against drilling.
There’s an environmental group somewhere in the mix. Keep Hermosa Hermosa. I haven’t run into them, don’t know what their deal is, but their signs pepper the town, and their members wear green shirts here and there in the audience. They seem to know their facts, or at least the right questions, but don’t yet speak as the People.
As part of the settlement between E&B Oil and Hermosa Beach, the drilling project will come to vote. When isn’t entirely clear. Some people say November 2014, but the more wary say they are afraid the city and the oil company will push the vote early next year, before voters really have time to chew on the information. This happened in Carpinteria in 2010 or, at least, Venoco, Inc. tried to bypass the town’s review process. They failed to fool voters.
Hermosa’s situation is strange. The voices in the community seem unsure, if not divided. Maybe it only takes so many years to forget your past, perhaps twenty.
Hermosa is rich. You can hear the waves roll back and forth along the shore from any street. I walked the beach before the meeting. The ocean breeze and warm sun struck harmony. But amidst the soft sands and aging lifeguard towers, you can’t escape the soaring smoke stacks of the AES power plant, looming just behind pleasant beach-facing homes.