Oil on the water

With Hermosa facing a $500 million oil suit judgment and the nation facing $4 a gallon gasoline, the debate over offshore oil drilling is on again
by James Longton
Published June 26, 2008

Local sailors and paddlers know when they enter the waters a mile off Redondo Beach they will encounter a large oil slick and small tar balls, as well as an olfactory array of gases, including methane, ethane and propane. The tar balls frequently wash ashore, creating sticky, black, hard to remove messes on the bottoms of people’s feet.

Passing oil tankers and local refineries are commonly held to blame.

But as the boaters and paddlers know from experience, the fault lies with a fault line in the 700-foot-deep Redondo Canyon.

Chumash Indians used the tar to calk their canoes. Now, President George Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain would like to use the offshore oil to calk the nation’s leaky energy policy.

Body Glove co-founder Bob Meistrell, a lifelong marine environmentalist and diving and surfing hall of fame inductee, thinks that’s a good idea, for both environmental and financial reasons.

Chevron El Segundo Government Affairs manager Rod Spackman disagrees, at least in regards to local drilling. He doubts the Redondo seepage sites are financially viable, though he believes other locations in the coastal zone might be.

Until the past few weeks, drilling in California’s coastal waters had not been seriously debated at the national level since the 1973 oil crisis, triggered by OPEC’s refusal to sell oil to the United States because of its support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Oil prices quadrupled from $3 to $12 a barrel, prompting proponents of energy independence to call for coastal drilling.

Ocean drilling opponents reminded voters of the 1969 blow-out of a Santa Barbara offshore oil derrick. The blow-out spewed an estimated 80,000 barrels of crude oil, creating an 800 square mile slick that killed an estimated 10,000 sea birds and other marine life. Thirty five miles of Santa Barbara coastline were closed by the spill.

Offshore drilling opponents declared victory in 1981 when Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Moratorium, which prevents oil drilling in most Pacific and Atlantic coastal waters. (Santa Barbara and Orange County were exempt because of previously existing offshore oil rigs.)

Every year since then, Congress has renewed the moratorium.

Locally, Hermosa Beach residents thought the issue of offshore drilling was forever put to rest with the City Council’s vote in 1998 to cancel a lease with Macpherson Oil Company. The lease would have permitted the company to slant drill from the city yard at Sixth Street and Valley Drive into the city’s tidelands.

But within the past few weeks, the debate over coastal drilling has been reignited, on both the national and local levels.

The national debate
The national debate on coastal oil drilling is being fueled by presidential-year electioneering, and $5-a-gallon gasoline.

At stake is an estimated 10 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and nearly 17 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas three miles from California's coast, the Wall Street Journal reported last Thursday.

President George W. Bush argued for lifting the coastal moratorium during a Rose Garden press conference two weeks ago.

“If Congressional leaders leave for the Fourth of July recess without taking action, they will need to explain why $4 a gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act,” he argued.

McCain proposed offshore drilling last week as part of his energy platform during a speech in Houston.

"As for offshore drilling, it's safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston," he told 400 supporters.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a McCain supporter, quickly distanced himself from McCain on the issue.

During a speech last week in San Diego at BIO International, an annual biotechnology industry conference, Schwarzenegger described California’s coastline as “an international treasure” that should continue to be protected by the 1981 federal oil-drilling moratorium.

“I do not support lifting this moratorium on new oil drilling off our coast,” he said.

South Bay Congressional Representative Jane Harman dismissed the Bush and McCain proposals as “a non-starter.”

“It’s an incredibly cynical proposal because it would have no short-term effect on supply or price. I applaud Gov. Schwarzenegger for his concern for the environment,” she said in an interview on Monday. “Approximately 80 percent of the outer continental shelves are already open to drilling and the oil companies are not drilling,” she noted.

“A better call,” she said, “is to reduce demand by conserving and using clean energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal, which are plentiful in California.”

Disappearance deckhand Bill LeFay points to an oil slick that bubbled to the surface from fissures in Redondo Beach canyon. Photo by Rick Ciampa The South Bay debate
Locally, the debate on coastal drilling resumed in February when Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell put Hermosa Beach on the hook for as much as $500 million for unilaterally cancelling Macpherson Oil’s 1986 oil drilling lease.

The city is appealing the decision to the State Supreme Court and negotiating with Don Macpherson in an effort to avoid a jury trial to determine the amount of the award.

State Assemblyman Ted Lieu is working with both sides to settle the lawsuit, and has said he will try to protect the city with special legislation if a settlement isn’t reached by August.

Hermosa’s bankruptcy-threatening predicament can be traced back to 1984 when voters overturned a 1932 ban on drilling (renewed in 1958) after Macpherson Oil promised an estimated $100 million to the city over a 35-year-period. Residents hoped to use the proceeds to buy the abandoned Santa Fe railroad right-of-way that ran the north-south length of the city, and make it a greenbelt.

Two year later the city awarded Macpherson Oil a 35-year lease to drill from the city maintenance yard at Sixth Street and Ardmore. The agreement would have allowed Macpherson to erect a temporary, 135-foot-high drilling rig for drilling 30 wells in the residential neighborhood. Hermosa was to receive 40 percent of the oil revenue.

Then in 1995, after having found county bond money to fund the greenbelt acquisition, residents voted to reinstate the ban on oil. In 1998, the council followed the voters’ lead by canceling Macpherson’s lease agreement on the grounds that the project was a threat to “health, safety welfare.”

Robert Benz, the one member of the 1998 council who favored drilling, abstained from voting on the contract because he owned property near the drilling site. In hindsight, he said in a recent Easy Reader letter to the editor, the council’s decision looks even worse than it did at the time, when oil was $12 a barrel.

“With crude at $130 per barrel and heading for $200 the potential windfall to the city and the school district would have been anywhere between $1 billion and $1.5 billion,” Benz wrote following the February Superior Court ruling in favor of Macpherson. “Instead of the yuppies scrambling to justify additional taxes to supplement their poorly managed school district, they would have been debating on whether to build a university. It seems that the most reasonable alternative to the present course is to promote oil drilling in Hermosa Beach.”

Stop Oil leader Rosamond Fogg, who organized the 1990s fight against the Macpherson Oil agreement, responded with her own letter to the editor in Easy Reader, stating, “Hermosa oil is of such poor quality it will never fetch close to average market rates and, to make matters worse, the size of the reserve is small. Don’t take this Luddite’s word for it — the California State Lands Commission staff recommended against the project precisely because there isn’t enough oil to justify the noxious impacts…Even if Hermosa Beach sat on high-quality crude, the safety issues of a drilling and production operation in a densely populated area remain critically important. Robert Benz's gloating notwithstanding, the reasons to not drill for oil in Hermosa Beach are as compelling today as they ever were.”

The Santa Monica Bay
“I’ve been going through this oil slick off Redondo for decades now,” said Meistrell, who together with his brother Bill founded Body Glove in Redondo Beach in 1952. “Ever since I was a lifeguard in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there has been oil all over the beach. And everybody has always complained about it being the oil company’s irresponsibility, which of course it isn’t. In those days, I didn’t even know there was natural oil seepage, and I’ll bet probably 75 percent of the people in the South Bay don’t know it’s out there today.

“For 15 years, I did 50 trips a year for different charities and burials at sea,” Meistrell added. “And we’d always headed out toward the oil slick because that’s where the wildlife is. If you want to see dolphins, seals, whales, birds, fish… you’ll usually see them right near the oil slick.

“I bring people out on these charity trips who smell the oil…and they’re quick to say things like ‘those damn oil companies, they’re destroying our earth!’ But people are only aware of disasters like Exxon Valdez. They have no idea how much oil is actually moved around the world every day to support their lifestyle. I ask people all the time…if you had to rate the oil companies in transporting oil all over the world…all the years they’ve been doing it…what would you give them…a poor, fair, good, or excellent? And almost everybody says poor, every time.”

“Truth be told…you know what they get,” Meistrell continued. “An excellent. Oil companies always get a bad rap, but they have about a 99.99 percent success rate. If you take all the oil that’s been transported around the world, all these years, and you divide by the amount that’s been spilled…it’s barely a drop in the bucket”

Meistrell and his submarine partner Don Sieverts of Undersea Graphics, plan to photograph the oil seepage at its source.

“For now, we’re not going to convince people to go forward with alternative fuels,” Meistrell said. “We’re not all going to get a small car right away, and we’re certainly not going to convince rich people to put up a windmill in their back yard.

“The truth is, we won’t even need oil maybe 25 years from now,” continued Meistrell. “So let’s get ours out of the ground here and make some money while it’s worth something. In 25 years, it’s going to be worth about one cent a gallon and we’re not going to be able to sell it. If we had oil like this coming up in the middle of LA, they’d put up a well today. U.S. oil companies build the safest oil wells in the world. Why we don’t build one out here I don’t know. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Redondo Beach resident Colleen Garcia-Butler shows off a tar ball she and daughter  they rolled up during walk along RAT’s Beach.“There is a fairly large amount of material seeping out of these fissures every day, all along the Southern California coast,” said Chevron’s Spackman

“A substantial source runs under about 700 feet of water in the Redondo Canyon along the south end of the bay, and another obvious one is 2.5 miles west of the Manhattan Beach Pier. You see more of it after a little earthquake. If we get a little tremble, it shakes up that fault and we’ll see more oil in the water than usual.

“But these seeps are heavy oil, relatively shallow in the structure and very low-pressure, and you really can’t find it in any concentration, so they’re really not commercially viable,” he said.

“Technologically you wouldn’t make that kind of investment to try and produce the amount of materials necessary to be commercially profitable,” Spackman added, “especially considering the time it would take.”

According to the Wall Street Journal’s June 19 article, “If the [coastal drilling] bans were lifted tomorrow, it would be at least seven years – and likely as long as a decade – before the first oil began to flow off the coasts of Florida, California and the eastern seaboard.”

“Look what drilling did to Santa Barbara” said King Harbor boater William Knox. “I’d hate to see that happen to our bay. A big question is where exactly would these things be constructed? Would they be out past the shipping lane, or right here inside the bay?”

“Regardless of the financial aspect, it’s still a quality of life issue,” said lifetime Redondo Beach resident Rita Serrano. “People at the beach cherish their soothing view. It’s half the reason most of us live here. Do we really want those big ugly structures screwing that up?”

Marine life impact
Some experts argue that offshore rigs stimulate marine life.

“Oil rigs are actually settings for thriving marine ecosystems,” said Erin Hall, marine biologist at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christie, where they maintain a viewing tank created to simulate the success of oil derricks as marine habitats. “They provide a solid structure that enables many marine animals to attach, which in turn makes it easier for them to hunt for food. The rigs act as artificial reef systems enabling many types of fish, corals, sponges and other marine organisms to build healthy habitats.”

Hermosa native Bob Evans, inventor of the Force Fin and a former underwater photographer disagrees.

The national debate over coastal drilling is likely to continue heating up as the November presidential election approaches.

“This is not something that is going to give consumers short-term relief and it is not a long-term solution to our problem,” Barrack Obama said in response to Bush’s proposal to lifting the drilling moratorium.

Locally, the debate over coastal drilling is also likely to heat up, especially if Hermosa Beach and Macpherson Oil fail to reach an agreement and their dispute goes to a jury trial.

As for those annoying tar balls and the sticky black stains they leave when tracked home from the beach, the best product for removing them is a gasoline refinery byproduct, commonly known as baby oil. ER