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Many Battles but No Winner : A tenacious Occidental Petroleum Corp. and ambivalent city officials have fought to a draw for 22 years over Palisades drilling.

Second of Two Parts.

September 19, 1988|TED VOLLMER | Times Staff Writer

A few weeks before Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California on Nov. 8, 1966, Occidental Petroleum Corp. discovered oil not far from his Pacific Palisades home.

On the same day 22 years later, when they will help choose President Reagan's successor, Los Angeles voters may decide once and for all if Occidental will finally get to extract the first drop of oil from that same find.

Competing city Propositions O and P on the Nov. 8 ballot could prove to be the climax of the Palisades oil-drilling saga. But there is no certainty. The Oxy fight has appeared to be finished many times, only to resume unexpectedly on some other front.

Proposition O, co-sponsored by Councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, seeks to wipe out three 1985 city ordinances permitting Oxy to drill in specified districts of Pacific Palisades. To prevent similar ventures, the measure also would impose a general ban on oil drilling 1,000 yards inland from the mean high tide, although present drilling operations, such as those in the Venice and Wilmington areas, would be allowed to continue.

Backed by Oxy

Proposition P, heavily bankrolled by Occidental, would "reauthorize" the 594 acres of drilling districts north of the two-acre Pacific Coast Highway site where Oxy would base its drilling operations. The pro-drilling measure would, among other things, earmark funds for toxic waste enforcement efforts.

Because the two measures conflict, the initiative receiving the most yes votes, if it has a majority, will prevail.

The two initiatives are hybrids of past efforts by the rival sides. In 1974, Braude proposed an identical 1,000-yard coastal drilling ban, which failed to win council backing. Oxy, meanwhile, has repeatedly tried to make its project more palatable to the city with attractive offers of additional revenue and at-cost oil and gas supplies.

The protracted fight has pitted one of the world's largest corporations and its powerful chairman, Armand Hammer, against Braude and a determined alliance of environmentalists and Palisades homeowners called No Oil Inc. who object to oil drilling along the coastline and particularly near a popular beach.

The 90-year-old Hammer, known worldwide as the American capitalist who for decades has dealt successfully with Soviet leaders, has vowed to carry on the Palisades fight indefinitely. Equally committed in their opposition are No Oil leaders and Braude, who represents the Palisades area.

From the beginning, deep bitterness has framed the debate over the highly charged issue--the advantages versus the disadvantages of oil drilling in an upscale oceanside neighborhood. Nor has the rhetoric toned down over time:

"(Hammer) is like a spoiled child who is accustomed to having his own way," Braude said recently. "He is apparently able to influence political decisions in other parts of the world, but he is simply unwilling to recognize that he simply cannot have his way here in Los Angeles, his own city."

Counters veteran Oxy director Arthur Groman on Hammer's behalf: "I think (Braude) is the most arrogant man that I've ever met in my life . . . he's a hypocrite. He has absolutely no rational arguments against this (project)."

And as for the anti-drilling forces, Groman says: "These are dirty, vicious, lying people. There is nothing they won't resort to. They are despicable people."

Akin to a long-running soap opera, the controversy has also been an exhaustive bureaucratic struggle consuming hundreds of hours of public hearings before a half-dozen agencies. Filing cabinets full of dry and complex geological studies and environmental reports have proliferated.

Many Temporary Victories

In official arenas, both sides have won their share of temporary victories. The city Planning Commission has twice voted against the project, the City Council three times in favor. Two zoning administrators, 13 years apart, issued opposite opinions on whether drilling at the bluff-side site made sense. The California Coastal Commission's experts urged the panel last year to reject Oxy's exploratory permit application, only to see it approved on a 7-5 vote after a politically charged hearing.

Another key battleground has been the courtroom, where legal fees have run to hundreds of thousands of dollars on litigation that has twice gone up to the state Supreme Court. A No Oil suit challenging the project is still pending and Oxy promises to sue if Proposition O prevails on Nov. 8.

The controversy has figured in the rise and fall of several of the city's political leaders and remains a factor in future campaigns.

A scandal over a 1969 land swap between Oxy and the city helped propel Bradley--who charged that Occidental obtained its drilling site through "deceit and deception"--to his historic victory over Sam Yorty, a key player in the exchange.

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