Judge Stops Whittier Oil Project on Land Intended to be a Nature Preserve

Monday, June 10, 2013

A last-ditch effort to block the city of Whittier from allowing oil drilling on land designated for use as a wilderness preserve succeeded last week when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge said the property was being misused.

Judge James C. Chalfant ruled that the city couldn’t sign leases with oil companies to drill on 1,280 acres in the Whittier Hills because it had purchased the land using funds from Proposition A, a 1992 Los Angeles County ballot measure aimed at preserving natural lands and open space.

“When the parties say we want this for open space . . . that is inconsistent with having an oil derrick on it,” Chalfant reportedly said from the bench. The Whittier Daily News said the preliminary injunction granted by the judge is likely to be made permanent this week.

The city, hard hit by the recession, signed a deal with Matrix Oil Co. of Santa Barbara in 2008 to drill, and hoped to make somewhere between $7.5 million and $100 million a year in royalties. Their action was opposed in court by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) and Los Angeles County entities. MRCA is a partnership between the state’s Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Conejo Recreation and Park District and the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District.

While city officials talked afterward of possibly appealing the decision, they may have more pressing matters to consider shortly. A spokesman for Whittier Hills Oil Watch (WHOW), the group that spearheaded opposition to the drilling, told the Daily News it is considering a recall campaign against city council members.

The judge repeatedly said in his ruling that the city had misconstrued the law and violated the public trust. He also said it erred in not seeking the approval for its actions from the Los Angeles County Regional Open Space District, which oversees distribution of Prop A. money.

Whittier officials had argued that Proposition A didn’t mention mineral rights, so while the county controls the surface rights the city could drill underground. The city also says it took all the necessary steps needed to sign the deal with Matrix, including amending the lease for the oil drilling project to exclude the district.

The plaintiffs said that last move violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the judge agreed. 

The city is now compelled to stop all work at the site. Bulldozers were poised to begin clearing the site in February when Chalfant issued an order that effectively blocked grading and digging, but allowed the removal of vegetation. 

The situation in Whittier is being closely watched around the state. Environmental groups expressed a fear that other cash-hungry cities and counties, having purchased land with public funds meant for conservation, would be inspired to pursue profits, instead.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Fallout from Judge’s Ruling on Whittier Oil Project Could Include a Council Recall (by Steve Scauzillo, Whittier Daily News)

Superior Court Judge Halts Whittier Oil Drilling Project (by Steve Scauzillo, Whittier Daily News)

Court Fight over Drilling in Nature Preserve That Was Bought with Conservation Funds (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Tentative Decision on Petition for Writ of Mandate, Breach of Contract, and Declaratory Relief (Judge James C. Chalfant, Los Angeles Superior Court)

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