Environmental Group Drops Whittier Drilling Opposition in Exchange for Cash

Monday, August 19, 2013

This is how sausage—and conservation policy—get made. It’s also how an environmental leader gets called “Judas” by a county supervisor and former ally.

An environmental group that had been leading a community revolt against plans by the city of Whittier to allow oil drilling on land purchased with public funds for use as a nature preserve reversed course and signed an agreement to drop its opposition in exchange for money.

The money, up to $11.25 million a year in oil royalties, would be used by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) to purchase and preserve other land in the county. 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. The conservancy also dropped its own lawsuit.

Community activists were aghast and claimed betrayal. So did Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “I feel betrayed by a leader we have entrusted for decades to preserve and conserve open space,” Molina said of conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston. “I’m troubled by the rationalization he created for himself. It is the same kind of rationalization Judas used.”

Edmiston’s decision also didn’t sit well with Roy McKee, president of Whittier Hills Oil Watch, who told the Valley Tribune, “The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is no longer a conservancy. It is an acquisition corporation that buys lands for oil companies.”

Edmiston made the decision to settle with the city despite a Superior Court ruling in their favor last June. 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.

But Edmiston said these kinds of lawsuits don’t fare well in appellate court, it was too expensive to fight oil companies in this fashion and the money could be well spent on other projects.

The issue has been a lightening rod since the city, hard hit by the recession, signed a deal with Matrix Oil Co. of Santa Barbara in 2008 to drill in the Whitter Hills. It has been watched closely around the state as other cash-strapped cities and counties sitting on public funds designated for conservation look for new revenue streams. Locally, it has generated discussion of recalling members of the city council. 

Judge Chalfant signed off on the agreement, which still needs approval from the county. Everyone returns to court on September 6.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Environmental Groups Agree to Drop Case against Whittier Oil Drilling (by Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

Oil-Drilling Project under Whittier Nature Preserve Rankles Opponents (by Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times)

Judge Stops Whittier Oil Project on Land Intended to be a Nature Preserve (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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