Hermosa Beach voters turned out in record numbers on March 3 to defeat Measure O, overwhelmingly upholding the beach city’s long ban on oil drilling. Voters rejected a plan by E&B Natural Resources to build 34 onshore wells that would have drilled for oil under the city’s pristine beach, and Santa Monica Bay, for the next 35 years.
“It feels great,” said City Council member Nanette Barragan, one of the first to come out publicly against oil drilling in 2012.
“We won this because the community decided to come together and form a grass-roots campaign to stop them from getting a toe-hold in the Santa Monica Bay,” she said. “If they had won the right to drill here, who knows where it would have stopped?”
The margin of victory appeared to be about 3-to-1 late Tuesday night. The Hermosa Beach City Clerk's ballot counting room was packed with oil-drilling opponents who whooped and hollered every time new totals were released.
The neighbor-versus-neighbor aspect of the Measure O battle drew media attention from outside the South Bay two weeks ago in the L.A. Weekly, and peaked Monday with a story in The New York Times featuring photos of pro-drilling and anti-drilling leaders.
Tuesday the city was crawling with TV trucks, long lines snaked out the doors at the city’s five polling places the moment they opened at 7 a.m., and the city clerk’s office said it had received a record number of mail-in ballots, more than 3,000.
“It’s the busiest day I’ve ever seen,” said City Clerk Elaine Doerfling. “And I’ve been here since 1989.” With 13,800 registered voters, city council elections typically draw about 4,500 voters.
But on Tuesday, early estimates said 7,000 voters may have turned up.
Although the Hermosa Beach City Council never took a formal vote on the issue, Barragan eventually was joined by the other four council members – Mayor Peter Tucker, Michael DiVirgilio, Carolyn Petty and Hany Fangary — in opposing the drilling plan.
The cities of Santa Monica and next-door Manhattan Beach, as well as the Del Rey Neighborhood Council of Los Angeles, unanimously opposed the drilling plan.
The oil company spent more than $2 million trying to convince voters it had a safe and environmentally sound plan that would not disrupt or endanger the lifestyles of Hermosa’s 20,000 residents, who are packed into 1.4 square miles. It also spotlighted projections that Hermosa could receive up to $627 million in oil revenue over 30 years, which the company said would help address deteriorating infrastructure and overcrowded schools.
But anti-drilling leaders said the oil company was exaggerating the city’s problems and trying to whip up fears that the city would go broke without the oil revenue.
“They outspent us by about 20-to-1, challenged us every step of the way and even ignored the city manager’s finding that their ads were false and misleading and they should set the record straight,” Barragan said.
Craig Cadwallader of the Surfrider Foundation, which worked to defeat the oil drilling plan, said, “In one sense it was divisive, but it also brought neighbors together in a way that nothing ever had before. It shows how much the residents care for the city and the environment.”
The decisive vote settles a nearly century-old issue.
In 1932 Hermosa Beach voters enacted a ban on all oil and gas operations inside city limits. That ban stood until 1984, when voters approved two initiatives to permit drilling at two sites. In 1986 the Hermosa Beach City Council approved an initial lease to allow Macpherson Oil Co. to drill for oil.
Then in 1992 the city council approved a lease allowing Macpherson to “slant drill” at an angle to tap into oil reserves beneath the ocean floor off Hermosa's shores. The project called for up to 30 oil wells and production facilities on 1.3 acres at the city’s maintenance yard at 6th Street and Valley Drive, next to the town's greenbelt, businesses and residences — essentially the same project E&B has proposed.
But in 1995 Hermosa voters restored the oil-drilling ban and in 1998 the council voted to halt the Macpherson project. Macpherson then sued.
That suit was settled on the eve of trial, when Macpherson sold its interest in the project to E&B.
Under the terms of the lawsuit settlement in 2012, E&B was given the right to put its drilling project before the voters.
Because voters turned them down on Tuesday, the city will now pay the oil firm $17.5 million in compensation.
Barragan said the city has already put aside nearly $7 million to cover what the city must now pay to E&B. She said the city will be able to pay another $10.5 million to the oil firm in annual increments of $800,000 — affordable for a city whose annual operating budget is approximately $40 million.