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In Hermosa Beach, a dilemma on oil drilling

Hermosa Beach voters must decide to repay $17.5 million to an oil company or risk slant drilling

Jani Lange lives uncomfortably close to the site of a proposed 8,000-barrel-a-day oil drilling operation in seaside hamlet of Hermosa Beach, population 19,801.

How close?

He could probably lob an egg from his front door and score a direct hit.

"Ninety-eight steps," said the 37-year-old, lifelong resident and longtime surfer. He put his Converse sneakers heel to toe, showing me how he measured the distance to a city maintenance yard where an 84-foot drilling tower would shoot up.

"And I have small feet," added Lange.

Size 8, to be precise. And with a wife and two kids, ages 6 and 4, he is more than a little skittish about the risks of living across the street from a slant-drilling project in which 30-plus diagonal wells would knife underground and shoot under Santa Monica Bay to suck oil out of the Earth.

That's why a billboard-size banner hangs from the front of his townhouse, listing the "9 Significant & Unavoidable Impacts of Drilling for Oil," as identified by an environmental impact report.

Debate over oil drilling on the California coast is nothing new. But what's going on in Hermosa Beach offers a twist on the usual narrative because of a complicated legal quandary.

Voters are going to the polls in March. If they tell E&B Natural Resources to get lost, the city would have to fork over $17.5 million to the oil company as part of a legal settlement.

But if voters lift the existing ban on drilling, and the black gold starts flowing, the city could reap millions of dollars annually over the next 35 years.

"To me, this is purely a dollars and sense issue," said Ray Dussault, a retiree who says opponents are greatly exaggerating the risks and jeopardizing a windfall that could pay for more city services and coastal protection through a tidelands fund the oil proceeds would funnel into.

"There's more oil that seeps up naturally from the sea bed into Santa Monica Bay than it's possible for this project to accidentally put in the ocean," Dussault said.

Jim Sullivan, a commercial real estate broker and 33-year resident, argues that the drilling technology would be state-of-the-art safe and that Hermosa Beach is desperately in need of funds for upgrades to its sewer system, the Fire Department building and the community center, among other projects.

"This is a fantastic way for Hermosa to secure its financial future," Sullivan said. "As a friend of mine said, the city lives paycheck to paycheck."

Mike Finch, an E&B vice president, told me that calling environmental and safety impacts "significant" is misleading, because the standards and definitions are so strict in California. He said the risk of leaks or other problems are minimal given the nature of the project and the technological advances now in force, and he pointed out that thousands of wells operate safely in the Los Angeles Basin.

California, Finch added, consumes 1.8 million barrels of oil a day, with 1.3 million of that amount coming in through our ports.

"For every barrel you make here, you take a barrel off that ocean," he said, and he added that it's easy to point a finger at Big Oil, "but everybody's consuming it," particularly if they happen to drive.

He's right, and even though California Gov. Jerry Brown would love to have every vehicle in the state be powered by windmills, we're a long way from developing alternative energy sources that don't come with their own environmental impacts and high costs.

But as dependent as we are on oil, does it make sense to drop 34 wells and erect a hulking tower right smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood in a tiny, densely populated town?

I'm no expert, but Jeff Krag is a retired oil company chemical engineer, and he's one of the neighbors who think it would be preposterous to center the drilling operation on "a postage-stamp" plot of land surrounded by homes and businesses.

"It doesn't fit," he said. "It's inconsistent with the density of the nearby population," and impossible to completely mitigate noise, odor and pollution. He also believes that although they may be minimal, the risks of leaks underground or under the bay are real, especially given the possibility of earthquakes or settling caused by drilling. Then there's the big threat — a pressurized blowout and possibly fire.

"My kitchen window looks right out over the drill site," said Michael Collins, who pointed to that window Friday morning as he stood at Sixth Street and Valley Drive with other drilling opponents. "If you look at the EIR ... there's a red circle where people would actually die if there was a catastrophic event. I live in the circle."

Sarah Sikich, vice president of Heal the Bay, said slant-drilling under Santa Monica Bay would be precedent-setting, and could jeopardize years of success in upgrading water quality and restoring marine life. The Santa Monica City Council, meanwhile, fearing the effects of a spill on that city, voted unanimously to encourage Hermosa Beach residents to vote against drilling.

Former Hermosa Beach Mayor George Schmeltzer told me he doubts the estimates of huge financial benefits from drilling, especially given the fluctuating price of oil, and he said two proposed hotels could deliver big revenues, so the city's not in dire straits. He also worried that if the rigs start pumping, Hermosa Beach would become "a kind of company town where you have one dominant business and they end up vetting who's on the City Council and who's this and who's that."

Schemltzer is going door-to-door with fliers and information packets, hoping to counteract an expected avalanche of campaign advertising by the oil company. Stacey Armato, one of the leaders of "Let's Keep Hermosa Hermosa," said banners are being hung all over town.

If voters say no to drilling, and the city has to pay $17.5 million to E&B, that's real money, Armato said. But paid out at roughly $800,000 or more a year, that fee would guard the health and safety of residents and preserve the vibe that attracted people such as her to Hermosa Beach.

"It's well worth it," she said.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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