WHITTIER, Calif. – Whittier city official Bob Henderson has spent three decades, by his own account, helping rescue vast expanses of this hilly preserve from continued drilling by oil companies. As head of a conservation authority, his responsibility has been to protect the land.
But now, with oil hovering around $100 a barrel, the same man who led the charge to save the 1,290-acre Whittier Wilderness Preserve is interested in drilling there.
Proponents believe Whittier could get as much as $600 million over 25 years in oil revenues by using new technology that they say will only disturb 7 acres of the vast Whittier Hills.
The proposal has bitterly divided this Los Angeles suburb that was founded in the late 19th century by Quakers, followers of a religion with a deep commitment to protecting the environment.
Henderson, who still thinks of himself as a conservationist, said he's surprised to find himself seriously considering the proposal.
"It's not that I've decided to destroy the preserve," he said. "What I do believe in very strongly is that you've got to be open and alert to help the habitat and the city. This has the potential to contribute millions of dollars to the preservation effort and in making sure the preserve is viable in the long run.
Drilling opponents don't see their former hero, or his current argument, in such nuanced light. They worry that once drilling is allowed in one spot future city council members could approve it elsewhere on the preserve.
"You can't one minute say, 'I want to save these hills,' and then move to drill on them,'" said resident Paula Castenon with Whittier Hills Oil Watch. "He's definitely going back on his word. The whole point in obtaining the mineral rights to that land was to preserve it and prevent oil drilling in the future."
The Los Angeles basin has more oil per square foot than almost anywhere in the world. There is drilling hidden behind an office building façade on a major city street and cloaked in a colorfully painted tower at Beverly Hills High School.
If the project gets county approval in the coming months, some worry it could set a precedent well beyond Whittier's boundaries — putting at risk thousands of acres of open space as other cash-strapped Southern California communities search for money during tough economic times.
"Certainly if the county were to approve this, there would be a lot of pressure on the county if other cities want to do the same thing to allow them to revert park land as well," said Sean Hecht, the executive director of the Environmental Law Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It opens the door for more people asking for that."
Whittier received an estimated $16.3 million dollars in 1992 to buy the properties and oil rights from Chevron and Unocal oil companies, which had been drilling on the site for decades, Henderson said. The once-scarred land has since been allowed to recover. The only indications of past drilling are the occasional metal pole marking an old well in an otherwise verdant expanse of grassy hills, sage and oak trees.
The money was part of an estimated $859 million in state bond money to improve beaches, parks and wildlife habitats. The funds have so far purchased more than 21,000 acres of mainly open space in cities throughout Southern California.
But in the early 2000s, Whittier officials began to consider what lay beneath the land and eventually approached Santa Barbara based Matrix Oil Co., which was already drilling in another part of Whittier.
In 2008, the city council unanimously voted to lease the property to Matrix for 30 years. Proponents say with advancements in technology, such as drilling at a slant instead of straight down, the drilling can be done more precisely and in a way that would minimize environmental damage, noise and fumes to protect the surrounding community. The terms of the lease restricts the drilling to 7 acres.
Whittier also hired the woman behind the original park bond measure, Esther Feldman, to study the drilling proposal and lobby the county for its approval. Feldman, who was paid $15,000 a month, said the proposal does not violate the open space proposition, and that when she drafted the measure she set up a mechanism to allow for the conversion of open space for non-park uses with county approval.
The tantalizing promise that it would be safe, legal and lucrative has been enough to convince some longtime residents to take a chance.
"If it's possible to do it without hurting the community, then it's a wonderful revenue source for Whittier," said Virginia Ball who has lived in Whittier since 1963.
Others are adamantly opposed and responded by filing a lawsuit and planting "Don't drill" signs on their lawns with pictures of pump jacks. The lawsuit argues that because the city of Whittier purchased the property with bond money, it in effect entered into an agreement to preserve the area and comply with the state's open space policy which does not allow oil exploration.
Susan O'Caroll, an environmental consultant for the Open Space Legal Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit against the city, county and Feldman, said it makes no sense to drill on a key piece of sensitive habitat.
"That's the portion that the habitat authority thought was important enough to call core habitat and restrict it," she said. "People can't go there without an escort. There are no public trails there."
For others like Roy McKee, the drilling proposal hits a deeply personal level. McKee was born in Whittier, raised three daughters here and has been watching as his wife has been unable to sleep out of worry over what this could do to their lives.
"We're so blessed to have what we have — it's a nice, quiet, wonderful community," he said. "I don't see this as a windfall for the community but a windfall for an oil company."
McKee points to other Los Angeles communities like Baldwin Hills, which has blamed health problems, cracked homes and declining property values on renewed drilling. He has also decided what he'll do if the proposal is approved.
"I will leave this town forever," he said. "And never look back."
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