CALIFORNIA
Sign up for the Essential California newsletter to get great stories delivered to your inbox
LOCAL

Concern spills in Windsor Hills

The narrow streets leading to Earl Ofari Hutchinson's house are scattered with wind chimes and bird houses and manicured topiaries that look as if they've been lifted from a Dr. Seuss book.

The house number is painted on a little sign in the shape of a terrier, his garage is framed by pink roses and his stucco walls have been painted a radiant Tuscan orange. One neighbor grows kumquats; another puts a 10-foot star atop his house every Christmas, so bright you can see it clear over on Slauson Avenue.

When Hutchinson, 62, a noted political analyst and author, greets you at the front door, it's hard to tell that anything is amiss.

"It's a great neighborhood," he agrees. "It just has a fatal flaw."

Hutchinson's house in Windsor Hills, along with nearby Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, Culver Crest and View Park, make up a well-heeled, doughnut-shaped community that has had, from its inception, an unusual and awkward centerpiece: a 1,000-acre oil field.

The oil field was discovered in 1924 and is operated by the Plains Exploration & Production Co., a Texas firm better known as PXP. The company extracts about 9,000 barrels of oil and natural gas each day. And the arguments for capping production at that level -- much less turning the land into a park, as many have long hoped for -- seem to fray each day as oil prices soar and U.S. supplies tumble.

PXP is pushing to add new wells -- potentially, one every week or so for the next 20 years. Indeed, energy companies across Southern California are shaking off the long sleep once brought on by low oil prices.

Sometimes it's easy to forget about all the oil down there, easy to forget that before storied gushers like Texas' Spindletop ushered in the petroleum age, prospectors found oil near Chavez Ravine, supposedly by digging with a sharpened eucalyptus log. Today, drilling operations offer more potential return than they have in years, and scores of new wells are on tap, in Long Beach, in the Whittier Hills, in Ventura County.

Many will be small-scale operations, some hidden behind trees or fake buildings. You might never know they are there -- unless, of course, you live next door.

Hutchinson beckons you into his backyard. Until recently there was a tidy stone patio, surrounded by lemon and orange trees. That's been reduced to hard dirt. An umbrella that once went with a picnic table has been tossed into the shrubbery, where it is fading and cracking in the sunlight.

Contractors recently spent two months, and Hutchinson spent $125,000, lifting his home, tearing up the backyard and fixing a gaping crack in an exterior wall. He blames PXP -- specifically the vibrations of the drilling at the bottom of the hill behind his house.

With workers clanging away on a nearby well, Hutchinson runs a slender finger along a crack that zigzags up to a second-floor window. The crack isn't as bad as it was before, he says, but it's clearly started again -- three months after the repair job.

PXP denies its operation had anything to do with the damage. Regardless, the dispute is a taste of the kind of battle that will almost certainly spider-web across Southern California in coming years:

In the Whittier Hills, where oil was first extracted more than a century ago, city officials bought more than 1,200 acres of land in 1995 -- much of it from Chevron Corp. and the now-defunct Unocal -- with the goal of conservation. Today, Whittier is studying whether to reopen the land to oil production, said Assistant City Manager Nancy Mendez.

If the city decides that drilling could take place without damaging a wildlife corridor that stretches to Chino Hills, production could begin by 2011.

In the Long Beach area, home to a 21-square-mile oil field, 70 new wells were installed last year and another 70 are expected this year. Growth could come faster, but the region is hamstrung by a lack of experienced engineers and geologists, as well as by eager companies fighting over a limited pool of drilling materials.

"Your wants and desires are governed by what you can accomplish and what you can get ahold of," said Curtis Henderson, the city's manager of oil operations.

Venoco Inc. is looking to increase production at its Southern California sites, said Mike Edwards, a vice president. At the firm's 65-well West Montalvo Field in Ventura County, for instance, production has increased between 20% and 30% in the last year, to about 1,000 barrels a day, he said.

"Elevated prices," Edwards said, "definitely make some of the properties that had marginal economics a lot more attractive."

More attractive, that is, to oil companies.

Gary Gless, 52, a retired Hollywood construction coordinator, bought his Windsor Hills home 12 years ago. The house, with views to the Pacific on a clear day, was more than a half-century old, and Gless and his wife, Leslie, were just the second owners.

That's typical in the neighborhood, where few people leave, and when they leave the natural way, homes often stay in the family. All of the communities surrounding the PXP operation are fiercely protective of their neighborhood.

"This," Gless said, "was my investment."

He dove in, digging terraces into the steep hill behind his home and planting a lovely spread of 40 fruit trees, including dwarf Meyer lemon and guava, interspersed with fish ponds and wisteria vines. The plan was to collect on a reverse mortgage and live off the proceeds -- a plan that Gless believes is now in peril because of PXP's expansion plans. As it is, complaints about noise and fumes are already routine in the neighborhood.

"It's scary enough that I might have to move," said Gless, who has become a leader of an effort to stave off the expansion. "Thousands of homes will be affected."

Community protests are already having an effect.

In Whittier, environmentalists have extracted promises that local officials will apply stringent tests in determining whether drilling would cause lasting damage. And this week, PXP agreed not to submit permit applications for new wells until late October, to allow time for public hearings, though a moratorium on new wells expired in June.

"I would like to stay here for the rest of my life -- if we can keep the property values up and the community strong," said Sally Hampton, 49, who has lived in Windsor Hills for 28 years.

She said scrambling to jack up domestic oil production is merely a way of "delaying the inevitable" -- moving toward alternative energy sources.

"They stand to profit -- tremendously -- at the expense of the community," she said. "And drilling in our neighborhood is not going to solve the oil crisis."

A PXP vice president, Steve Rusch, said that not only can the operation be conducted safely, but every drop of oil extracted locally "directly offsets" an equal amount of oil that needs to come into Southern California ports.

"If we don't do it, where does the oil come from?" he said. "Where does the check get written to? The Middle East? Venezuela? Every little bit counts."

But don't take Rusch's word for it. Many neighbors agree they don't have a leg to stand on. Not only do they face daunting practical obstacles -- starting with the fact that drilling is legal -- they figure they could lose the battle for public opinion, too.

"What do you care if I've got a crack in my wall?" Hutchinson said. "What really means something to you is lowering fuel costs. It's a very compelling argument. So I figure they can do whatever they want."

--

scott.gold@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading