Embarking on a high-stakes political campaign that promises to unleash big money, Los Angeles City Councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky formally launched an initiative drive Monday aimed at blocking oil drilling along the city's shoreline.
The initiative, which needs 69,000 valid voter signatures by June 1 to qualify for the November ballot, would repeal ordinances that allow Occidental Petroleum Corp. to proceed with long-standing plans to drill on a 2 1/2-acre site in Pacific Palisades. In addition, it would go beyond the Palisades to ban future drilling 1,000 yards inland of the mean high tide, except in industrial sections of Los Angeles Harbor.
Braude and Yaroslavsky, however, heralded the initiative as a crusade to save all of California's coastline. At a time when oil firms are "standing outside the secretary of interior's door" trying to get drilling permits, Yaroslavsky said, an Occidental oil strike in the Palisades would set a precedent leading to more drilling, both onshore and off.
In a City Hall press conference, the two councilmen quickly reheated the emotional rhetoric that has marked the controversy from the late 1960s, when Occidental first sought approval to drill on the Pacific Palisades site across Pacific Coast Highway from Will Rogers State Beach.
This Isn't Tulsa
"This is Southern California, where we appreciate our precious beaches. It's not Tulsa, Okla., where oil wells stand elbow to elbow," Braude said. "Do we want our shoreline to be a forest of oil rigs?"
"The notion that Santa Monica Bay could look like a Tulsa oil field is outrageous," Yaroslavsky declared.
Such remarks are propaganda, Occidental officials say.
"That is a red herring of the reddest hue," Occidental director Arthur Groman said. "And as an argument, it stinks like a red herring."
Mickey Kantor, counsel for a recently formed pro-drilling group called the Los Angeles Public and Coastal Protection Committee, responded with another familiar argument: That the anti-drilling crusade is an elitist cause that will cost the city between $100 million and $200 million over a 20-year period in taxes, royalties and license fees.
"Marvin and Zev are playing politics with the fiscal future of the city to satisfy a very few landowners," Kantor said.
Groman and Kantor said they expect the anti-drilling forces to qualify the initiative for the ballot but both expressed confidence that their side will prevail in November.
A recent California Supreme Court decision cleared the way for Occidental to start exploratory drilling, and the company's efforts were further encouraged recently by the failure of Braude to persuade a City Council panel to support repeal of the original ordinances.
The political forces on both sides are formidable. No Oil Inc., a large, private organization that has battled Occidental's plans in the courts, and the Sierra Club are among the groups expected to promote the initiative. Braude said he expects support from several homeowner groups.
In addition to Braude and Yaroslavsky, six other council members are on record opposing the drilling plan. Council members Ernani Bernardi, Gloria Molina and Michael Woo co-sponsored the initiative. Council members Joy Picus, Ruth Galanter and Joel Wachs are also initiative supporters. Under election rules, initiatives may only have five sponsors.
Occidental, led by chairman Armand Hammer, has several influential friends. They include the Public and Coastal Protection Committee, which has former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown as its chairman and includes William Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, as well as an influential black bishop, the Rev. H.H. Brookins. Kantor works for the politically connected firm of Manatt Phelps Rothenberg & Phillips.
Another supporter is the Pacific Palisades Land Owners Assn., which includes 7,500 people who have sold drilling rights to Occidental. Claiming vested rights, the group says it and Occidental would be entitled to $1.35 billion in damages if the city prohibits oil drilling.
Kantor said he expects both sides to raise more than $1 million. Braude said he will not be surprised if Occidental, which has already spent $11 million, spends more than $4 million.
"Tell Mr. Braude I think he'll raise $8 million," Groman responded.
At stake is not only the question of oil drilling but possibly a head start in 1989 mayor's race, which is expected to pit Yaroslavsky against incumbent Tom Bradley.
For environmentalists, the issue of drilling near the slide-prone Palisades bluff has become political litmus. Many remain bitter about Bradley's approval in 1985 for Occidental to drill. For years, the mayor had opposed the project. But Bradley said he changed his mind after becoming persuaded that the project's safety features made it environmentally sound.
"We're here because he signed the ordinance," Yaroslavsky said at the press conference.
Bradley said he had no plans to get involved in the initiative on either side.
Yaroslavsky deflected reporters' questions about the impact that the initiative may have on his mayoral ambitions. But the issue clearly presents an opportunity to bolster support Yaroslavsky won in co-authoring, with Braude, the successful 1986 growth-limit initiative, Proposition U, that energized the city's slow-growth movement.
Yaroslavsky and Braude have revived their Proposition U organization, Citizens for a Livable Los Angeles, to run the anti-drilling campaign. Braude said he expects a bigger triumph this time because "the constituents are way ahead of their elected officials."
"Ask them if they care about the beaches," he said. "The answer is yes."