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TV Spots Escalate Battle Over Oil Drilling : Rivals in Palisades Project Sharpen Their Messages as Election Nears

Times Staff Writer

A television commercial that began airing this week against Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s oil-drilling project in Pacific Palisades shows the explosion of an Occidental oil rig in the North Sea last July 6 that killed 166 workers.

In sharp contrast, a 90-second spot that has been running for nearly a month in support of the drilling project shows an attractive Spanish-style bell tower near a placid hillside as evidence that oil wells can be a welcome addition to a neighborhood.

The two ads competing for viewer attention represent the latest escalation in the high-stakes and increasingly bitter campaign between proponents of rival measures, Propositions O and P, on the Nov. 8 Los Angeles ballot. Campaign officials on both sides said the fight will intensify even further in the coming weeks, as new commercials, sharpening the rival messages, are shown.

The 30-second North Sea ad features Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), a longtime opponent of Occidental’s Pacific Palisades plan. Standing on crowded Will Rogers State Beach in one portion of the spot, Levine refers to the North Sea tragedy and brands Occidental’s nearby Palisades drilling venture a “threat to our coast . . . and a dangerous project.”

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A second anti-drilling ad features state Controller Gray Davis and also stresses that oil drilling can be dangerous. The 30-second spot shows footage of a recent oil well fire in the Ventura County community of Fillmore that caused $5 million in damage.

The two anti-drilling commercials are intended to counter the 90-second ad produced on behalf of Occidental-backed Proposition P, which would preserve the oil company’s city-approved project. Two other pro-drilling spots say the city will benefit from revenues it obtains from the proposed Occidental project.

The rival TV ads have sparked charges and countercharges that the ads are misleading at best and blatantly false at worst.

“It looks to the average viewer (of the Proposition P ad) that some group called the Coastal Protection Committee is asking to approve a beautiful (oil-drilling) project,” complained Roger Jon Diamond, president of No Oil Inc., one of the key groups supporting Proposition O, which would kill the Palisades project. The anti-drilling measure, co-sponsored by Councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, would also establish an oil-drilling-free zone 1,000 yards landward from the mean high tide line along the city’s shoreline.

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Of the Proposition O ads, Occidental attorney Michael Kantor said, “Both Gray and Mel know that this is a completely safe project. . . . Trying to compare this project with the North Sea is really outrageous.

“Everyone knows that the North Sea is the most dangerous place in the world to drill for oil . . . nothing like this project at all. The technology is different, the location is different, the operation is completely different and, of course, people lived there (on the rig).

“This inland drilling project is safe . . . (and) no amount of political rhetoric or outrageous use of an unfair comparison can change that fact,” Kantor said.

The controversial ads are part of multimedia strategies formed by both campaigns, which also include direct-mail appeals, lawn sign plantings and numerous press conferences and news releases.

By Election Day, campaign strategists for both sides estimate that as much as $4 million may be spent. Most of that money will go for commercials that will give viewers only a small sense of the complex oil-drilling battle that has raged over the past two decades.

As Nov. 8 nears, the concern--particularly among Proposition O supporters--is that Los Angeles voters, struggling with nearly 29 state and six local measures, will simply reject both oil-drilling initiatives out of frustration. Propositions O and P are the final items on the lengthy ballot.

Backers of Proposition P would not be disappointed at such an outright rejection of both measures because the 1985 drilling ordinances would remain in force if that occurs.

“We can live with the defeat of Proposition P as long as O is defeated (as well),” said political consultant Joseph Cerrell, who is advising the pro-drilling campaign. “Proposition P is a countermeasure to a great degree.”

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If both measures gain a majority, the one with the greater number of yes votes will prevail.

Belief Voiced

“Our campaign believes that the majority of the voters are with us and support us, that people don’t want oil drilling along the coast, at the beach,” said Karin Caves, Proposition O spokeswoman. “We believe that people will vote against Proposition P if they know what Proposition P is.

“That’s where our case is difficult,” Caves added. “We’re up against a major oil company with unlimited resources.”

Occidental is one of the world’s largest corporations and seemingly could pump in big amounts of money to defeat Proposition O. But Cerrell said there is a limit to how much the Proposition P campaign will spend.

“This is not a bottomless pit or a deep pocket,” Cerrell said. “There are financial constraints on this committee.”

As of Sept. 30, according to spending reports, more than $1.32 million had already been spent on Proposition P’s TV and radio ad campaign.

So far this year, the Occidental-backed campaign has pumped nearly $2.4 million into qualifying the pro-drilling initiative and working for its passage, according to the most recent spending reports. That represents an amount nearly four times larger than the $619,000 spent on behalf of Proposition O’s petition drive and passage.

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The money spent on behalf of Proposition P includes $198,000 in commissions to the political firm Doak & Shrum, which produced the 30- and 90-second commercials; $147,722 for campaign literature, and more than $130,000 for other professional consulting services. The politically connected law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips, a longtime lobbyist for Occidental, received $35,501. Kantor is a partner in the Manatt Phelps firm.

The Occidental-backed campaign team includes Richard Lichtenstein of Marathon Communications, the Doak & Shrum advertising firm and pollsters Gene Bregman, John Fairbank and Richard Maullin.

Also heavily involved in campaign strategy is Occidental’s long-time chairman Armand Hammer. Cerrell said the 90-year-old Hammer regularly sits in on strategy sessions and offers advice on such things as the loudness of music on television spots.

Cerrell said that Hammer, despite his 22-year quest for the drilling project, is unlikely to publicly campaign for voter passage of Proposition P. He added that Hammer was not, however, “being kept under wraps.”

“The point is everybody knows (Hammer’s) position,” Cerrell said.

In contrast to the Proposition P media campaign, anti-drilling forces have spent most of their money--about $127,000 so far--on direct-mail appeals. Another $54,000 was spent producing Proposition O television ads, but campaign officials will not reveal how much will be spent now that they are being aired.

To finance the expensive campaign, anti-drilling forces have held parties and art auctions in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood near the drilling project site. Sympathetic actors such as James Garner, Ted Danson, Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, Rod Steiger and Goldie Hawn have donated time and/or money to the no-drilling effort.

In addition to this week’s TV commercial start, the Proposition O campaign has included regular news conferences by Yaroslavsky and/or Braude, announcements of endorsements by various elected officials and a citywide mailing by leaders of the Sierra Club. The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, is expected to begin a lawn-sign campaign on behalf of Proposition O, Caves said.

The Proposition O team includes veteran political organizer and former Yaroslavsky press aide Jackie Brainard, as well as the direct mail-media consulting firm headed by Michael Berman and Carl D’Agostino.


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