In a high-stakes--and sometimes confusing--showdown over coastal oil drilling that pitted Occidental Petroleum Corp. against top environmental groups, Los Angeles voters Tuesday were giving an anti-drilling initiative a slim lead well into the ballot counting.
Proposition O, co-sponsored by City Councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, would repeal three 1985 ordinances granting Occidental authority to sink up to 60 wells on a two-acre site across Pacific Coast Highway from Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades.
Based on almost half of the returns from scattered Los Angeles neighborhoods, the yes vote for Proposition O held a slight lead.
Occidental’s answer to the Braude-Yaroslavsky repeal measure, Proposition P, meanwhile, was easily defeated. However, the oil company could still retain the authority to drill in the Palisades should Proposition O also lose.
Gathered at a Brentwood-area pizza parlor, anti-drilling proponents said an aggressive Occidental absentee ballot drive had backfired.
“We believe in miracles. That’s about all I can say,” said Yaroslavsky, who could use a Proposition O victory as a launching pad for a likely mayoral bid next spring.
Braude said, “It smells better and better and better. I think we’re going to win.”
At the Four Seasons Hotel in West Los Angeles, oil company representatives awaiting returns were subdued and unwilling to predict the outcome. Occidental General Counsel Gerald Stern said he was “guardedly optimistic” adding that “Occidental has made no decision as to what it’s going to do next. We’re waiting to see the results of this election.”
Other Los Angeles Measures
In early returns on other local measures, county Proposition J, a $197.5-million jail bond measure, was falling far short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
A Los Angeles city measure, Proposition L ($90-million library bond issue) was leading but falling short of the two-thirds needed. City Proposition N ($67-million fire equipment bond issue) was receiving more than its two-third approval requirement, and a third Los Angeles measure, Proposition M ($1.5-billion sewer bonds), was receiving the majority vote it needs for passage. A third Los Angeles measure, Proposition M ($1.5-billion in sewer bonds), was receiving the majority vote it needs for passage.
The oil-drilling battle dates from 1966 when Occidental sought to drill in the Palisades area after discovering what the company said was up to 60 million barrels of oil beneath the wealthy community. But Occidental has been frustrated for nearly 20 years by No Oil Inc., a vocal group of residents and environmentalists. No Oil’s first major victory came in 1973 when the California Supreme Court killed the project after being persuaded that it lacked an environmental impact report.
But in 1985, Occidental modified the project and even won approval to drill from Mayor Tom Bradley, in a stunning reversal of his 1978 veto. Later court and bureaucratic maneuvering, however, has held up the project’s start.
Braude and Yaroslavsky teamed up to try to kill the 1985 ordinances with Proposition O after an attempt last spring in the council failed. The two councilmen first joined forces in 1986 in successfully sponsoring a slow-growth measure, Proposition U.
The competing drilling measures represented the first time in city history that two voter-qualified measures were pitted against each other. And, the record amounts of money spent by both sides reflected the fight’s high-stakes nature.
Although all spending reports are not in, the Occidental-backed campaign alone is expected to cost nearly $8 million, more than half of that going to nearly a dozen television commercials. The Proposition O campaign, meanwhile, may reach $3 million in spending, nearly two-thirds of it going toward 30-second commercials.
The anti-drilling campaign had raised only about $1 million when it received a $900,000 boost from state Controller Gray Davis, who then became a Proposition O co-sponsor and appeared in two of the six commercials aired on behalf of the measure. Davis’ contribution came from a $1.2-million pot of campaign funds that a voter-approved June ballot measure barred him from using for himself.
From the beginning, Yaroslavsky and Braude cautioned voters to be wary of attempts by Occidental to mislead them, noting that passage of Occidental’s Proposition P was not essential to save the oil company’s Palisades project. The two councilmen pointed out that Occidental’s front committee was named the Los Angeles Public and Coastal Protection Committee and that references to the giant oil company were included on Proposition P ads only after a court order was obtained by drilling opponents.
For their part, drilling proponents countered with their own charges that the Proposition O campaign was deceptive as well.
The commercials that were the foundation of both campaigns also provided the grist for each sides’ counterattacks.
Out-financed better than 2 to 1, the Proposition O campaign focused its ads on two basic themes: That Occidental’s coastal project would lead to the offshore rigs in Santa Monica Bay that environmentalists have long fought, and that oil drilling was inherently unsafe and even more dangerous in this case because of the project’s proximity to an earthquake fault and a landslide area. To underscore the safety arguments, several Proposition O commercials featured news footage of the tragedy last July 6 in which 166 oil workers were killed when an Occidental rig exploded in the North Sea.
Occidental’s pro-drilling campaign, meanwhile, spent millions of dollars trying to persuade voters that Proposition P, rather than rival initiative Proposition O, would actually protect Santa Monica Bay from offshore drilling. To counter the Proposition O campaign’s implied TV message that the oil project was on the beach, Occidental’s ads broadly interpreted Proposition O as allowing drilling under every beach in the city.
Drilling proponents also focused on what they said were exemptions in Proposition O that allowed oil operations to continue at Venice Beach and in Los Angeles Harbor. These exemptions led to the Proposition P campaign charge of elitism in that the Palisades residents opposed to drilling did not mind it elsewhere. Drilling opponents said they could not legally prohibit drilling projects that already existed.
Occidental also pushed what it saw as the advantages of the drilling project--that it would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for police, schools and toxic waste enforcement. The promises were based on Occidental’s own projections for a five-fold increase in oil prices in a few years as well as a highly optimistic projection of how much oil and natural gas could be recovered.