Oil Drilling in Hermosa Beach Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

Nanette Barragan in Hermosa Beach
Nanette Barragan in Hermosa Beach
Photo by Ted Soqui

Nanette Barragan grew up in the rough Harbor Gateway section of L.A., the youngest of four daughters of Mexican immigrants. Her mother was a factory worker, her dad a TV repairman. On hot summer afternoons she and her sisters took the bus to Hermosa Beach and marveled at the beautiful town on Santa Monica Bay. "I thought it was a town where only rich and successful people lived," she recalls. "I couldn't imagine me living here."

But two decades later, after working her way through USC Law School while racking up huge student loans, she became a lawyer, and in 2008 she bought a 1950s cottage in Hermosa. In 2012 she learned that the city council was going to place a measure on the ballot asking voters to lift a longtime local ban on oil drilling beneath the bay. If voters upheld the ban, as most assumed would happen, Hermosa Beach would be forced to hand oil producer E&B Natural Resources of Bakersfield some $17.5 million in compensation — a lot, given that Hermosa's annual operating budget is about $40 million.

Now, the oil drilling ban question is finally appearing on the ballot, on March 3, and Barragan is no longer just a homeowner. She has fought to protect the famed surfing shore from what she sees as wildly incompatible oil drilling, and is so passionate about it that in 2013 she ran for Hermosa Beach City Council. She was a political neophyte with little chance of winning office, but E&B saw her rising voice as trouble. The firm asked the Hermosa city attorney to agree that if Nanette Barragan got elected, the fine print in existing California law banned Barragan from voting on the oil drilling issue — because her cottage is within 500 feet of E&B's drilling site.

But Barragan outfoxed the oil company attorneys. She found a "small-town exception" in the fine print that narrowed the range down to 300 feet; her cottage sits outside that range.

"I was surprised at the lengths the oil company would go, trying to prevent my election," she tells L.A. Weekly. "And after the election, they tried to stifle my First Amendment rights."

At 5 feet 2 inches and 105 pounds, Barragan, 38, is a fighter, an idealist and something of a contrarian. "My mom had a third-grade education. When people told her she couldn't do something, she didn't. When people tell me I can't do something, that just motivates me more."

Apparently in hopes of changing Barragan's viewpoint, E&B invited her to another of its drilling sites, in Huntington Beach, to illustrate how little industrial activity, noise and odors were present. Barragan returned to the site twice, uninvited and unchaperoned, prompting E&B's lawyers to threaten a trespassing complaint. Nothing came of that, but Barragan had their attention. Indeed, when Barragan won an upset for Hermosa Beach City Council in November 2013, E&B argued that she could no longer speak against them. The company claimed that its settlement with the city barred the council from taking a position.

"E&B has tried to intimidate and silence her," says Craig Cadwallader of the Surfrider Foundation. "But she's too feisty and independent for that."

E&B vice president Michael Finch tells the Weekly, "Miss Barragan has consistently misunderstood oil drilling issues." But E&B's legal theory soon fell apart. Council members can openly criticize the oil-drilling plan; they just can't take a council position. Councilman Hany Fangary came out against drilling before he was elected in November 2013, and two months ago so did Mayor Peter Tucker. A few weeks ago, council members Michael DiVirgilio and Carolyn Petty made it unanimous — all five council members individually oppose drilling.

Even so, plenty of residents support oil drilling, arguing that Hermosa badly needs the money. E&B says Hermosa could reap $627 million over 30 years, though an independent analysis projects about half that — and less if the price of oil stays at $50 or so a barrel.

"It's the most emotionally charged event in the history of Hermosa Beach," says Jim Sullivan, who has become a pro-oil activist on the issue. "I'm routinely accused of being a shill, secretly employed by E&B and willing to sacrifice our children's future." Sullivan has broken with one former friend, anti-oil activist Mike Keegan. "I used to go to his bakery for bagels," he says. "I still go for bagels, but we don't talk."

Hermosa is a normally quiet community of Italianate megamansions, midcentury Craftsman houses and funky old cottages. But the two sides have turned it into a hotbed of activism, with frequent fundraisers, door-to-door canvassing, even a fiery speech last week by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., founder/president of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Homes display battling banners — either "Keep Hermosa Hermosa" or "Protect Hermosa's Future." While they sound alike, the slogans represent very different visions. "Protect Hermosa's Future" envisions city infrastructure, public safety and schools getting a needed fiscal boost if E&B uses a 1.3-acre city maintenance yard to erect 34 land-based wells and an 84-foot drilling tower.

Last month, Mayor Tucker stood in front of a raucous anti-oil crowd and claimed, "This will be the biggest voter turnout in the history of Hermosa Beach! This is about the people who live here, not the people who want to ruin our city!"

The inflamed rhetoric even involves children. After Jose Bacallao allowed his two girls to speak before the city council about their fears of oil drilling, E&B executive Finch posted on Facebook: "Kids as political piñatas — nice parenting."

And consider the case of Dr. Alice Villalobos, her husband Ira Lifland and former Hermosa mayor George Barks. For 32 years, Villalobos and Lifland have thrown a New Year's Eve bash attended by a hundred friends. For the first 31 years, Barks was a guest.

But last New Year's Eve, the pro-oil Barks did not attend. The reason: He and Lifland had a public spat after Barks spoke in favor of oil drilling.

"People have really separated into two camps," says Hermosa Beach police chief Sharon Papa. The police union, the Hermosa Beach Police Officers Association, is solidly in the pro-drilling camp, and is running a pro-oil ad on TV claiming that Hermosa doesn't pay its officers competitively with nearby cities. That's a tough sell — California treasurer John Chiang's government salary database shows that the average Hermosa cop is paid $156,504 in total compensation, $6,000 more than cops earn in tony Manhattan Beach next door.

The police union's stance "is so threatening to us, because the police are in a position of authority," anti-oil activist Rob Blair says. Chief Papa tried to mitigate the fallout at roll call, reminding officers, she says, "of their professional responsibility to treat all citizens equally."

Barragan, who grew up just a few miles but worlds away from the Pacific Ocean, believes Hermosa's most cherished asset is its beach, which was long ago given its name, the Spanish word for beautiful.

The Environmental Impact Report for the drilling project warns, for example, that "a worst-case oil spill of 16,799 gallons ... could drain directly into subsurface soils and/or to the ocean through storm drains."

The cities of Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach, and the Del Rey Neighborhood Council in L.A., all oppose the drilling.

Barragan concedes, "It's really unfortunate and sad that it's become so divisive" but calls it a struggle over "the soul of this city."

She sees a link between her bus rides to Hermosa a quarter century ago and her current role. "Back then, I never imagined I could live here, serve on the city council or fight an oil company," she says. "Now I'm proud to represent the people here and help them keep Hermosa Hermosa."

Reach the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net or follow him on Twitter @paulteetor

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