SAN FRANCISCO — After a legal and political struggle spanning two decades, the state Supreme Court opened the way Thursday for Occidental Petroleum Corp. to drill exploratory oil wells on a 2-acre oceanfront site in Pacific Palisades.
The justices, in a brief order, refused to hear challenges by residents and environmentalists to a ruling last November by a state Court of Appeal upholding Los Angeles city ordinances authorizing the drilling.
The appellate court had rejected arguments by drilling foes that the city's environmental review of the project was inadequate and in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.
Occidental board member Arthur Groman hailed the Supreme Court's action and predicted the oil company will move swiftly to launch the oft-delayed project. The first phase of the project will be installation by the company of a dewatering system on city-owned cliffs directly above the project site.
City officials said Thursday that several of the initial dewatering project permits may be issued soon. Groman said work could begin within a month.
"We will proceed as expeditiously as possible," Groman said. "We've been very patient, waiting 22 years while (drilling opponents) have taken these delaying tactics. They've tried everything in the book."
Not everything. Drilling opponents said Thursday that they have other weapons in their arsenal including further legal attacks, an uphill political battle in the Los Angeles City Council to repeal the 1985 ordinances and, finally, a voter initiative campaign to block coastal oil drilling.
But following Thursday's high court action, leading drilling opponents conceded that at least for now it will be extremely difficult to block Occidental's plans to sink the exploratory oil wells.
"It's getting very, very remote at this time," said Cindy Miscikowski, chief deputy of Councilman Marvin Braude when asked if there was any likelihood that the oil company could be stopped. Braude has led the fight on the City Council to prevent the drilling and is co-sponsoring with Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky the planned initiative measure against the project.
No Production Rights
Miscikowski noted that Occidental has only drilling exploration rights--not production rights--at the site. Before the company can obtain full production authorization, it would need to return to state and local agencies for additional permits.
Drilling foes vowed they will not let the project get to that point.
"I think (Occidental) proceeds at their own risk," Yaroslavsky said. "Exploratory drilling and production drilling are two different things. If there is an initiative, I think it will stop the oil drilling."
Initiative organizers said that in coming weeks they will begin collecting the 69,577 voter signatures needed to place a drilling ban measure on the November ballot. The initiative's wording has not been publicized, but Braude deputy Miscikowski said it will aim to halt oil drilling and, short of that, to prevent anything beyond exploratory drilling.
"(Occidental) could get its rigs up, and the initiative could bring them right down," she said.
Attorney Mickey Kantor, one of the organizers of an Occidental-backed group that supports the project, said Thursday that he expects the initiative to qualify and also anticipates a major battle if it does.
"The (pro-drilling) organization will oppose it and put all of its efforts into defeating it. . . ," Kantor said.
Occidental's Groman said the company is not willing to await the outcome of a voter initiative before it begins sinking its test wells, even if that means dismantling an expensive project later.
"We don't think it's an unacceptable risk . . . if indeed there is a risk," Groman said.
On another front, attorney Roger Jon Diamond of Pacific Palisades, a member of the anti-drilling group No Oil Inc., said the group will try to enjoin the project in a separate suit pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. That suit challenges the state Coastal Commission's granting of the firm's plan for exploratory drilling at the site.
Groman scoffed at Diamond's threatened injunction: "We think the Coastal Act appeal has even less merit than the (one considered Thursday by the Supreme Court)."
Braude, meanwhile, repeated his vow to continue pushing in the City Council for repeal of the drilling ordinances that were adopted in 1985 and signed by Mayor Tom Bradley. Bradley refused to comment on Thursday's high court decision.
On Monday, Braude's repeal efforts were dealt a major setback when a council committee rejected his proposal, forcing him to try to muster 10 of the 15 council members to pass it instead of the usual eight votes. Drilling foes all but acknowledge there is not enough support on the council to overturn the 3-year-old laws.