Council Places Permanent Ban on Oil Drilling

The last active oil well in the city is on the BHHS campus and must stop operating by the end of 2016.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday for a permanent ordinance banning in Beverly Hills.

The law prohibits oil, gas or other hydrocarbon extraction after Dec. 31, 2016, though the council can "extend that deadline should there be a finding of public interest," City Planner Jonathan Lait said. Surface drilling operations based outside the city limits but aimed at reserves under the city must be at least 500 feet from a Beverly Hills school or park.

The last remaining local oil well is located on the campus of , fueling debate on the issue.

On one side, some residents and the majority of council members said health concerns are the primary motivation for the drilling ban.

"I dread the day that I must decide if my girls will attend Beverly Hills High School," said 1978 BHHS graduate Yvonne Hatherill, a cancer survivor who claimed her illness most likely was caused by environmental factors, not genetic predisposition. "For the safety of our community and our children, I ask you to please ban all oil drilling in our entire community."

Others such as Councilman John Mirisch, who voted against the ordinance, as well as members of the Board of Education and homeowners who receive royalties from Venoco Inc., which owns the oil well at the high school, have cited fiscal concerns in the form of lost revenue.

"We're not for banning drilling or against it, we just don't think there are enough facts," said Ken Goldman, president of the Southwest Beverly Hills Homeowners Association. "We do not know what basis you or anybody else has for stopping the drilling. ... What exact dangers does it pose?"

He estimated between 600 and 700 households in the city's southern section receive royalties from Venoco.

However, the prospect of slant drilling, which would allow a well to be set up outside the city but tap into the oil reserves under the high school, is still an option. Should Venoco find a site where slant drilling could occur, residents, the city and the Beverly Hills Unified School District would still earn royalties.

The city and school district receive between $700,000 and $1 million annually from Venoco as part of the high school well's lease agreement. The amount of yearly royalties depends on the amount of barrels extracted and oil market prices.

"We will try to find creative ways to ," Councilman Julian Gold said. "But ... having an oil well on a high school campus is inconsistent with our existing city law, inconsistent with our general plan, it's inconsistent with state law as it relates to new schools, and frankly, I cannot find a justification for it other than the money."

Mirisch attempted to add an amendment to the ordinance guaranteeing reimbursement to BHUSD, but it was defeated 4-1. The councilman did say he would oppose extending Venoco's lease when it expires on Dec. 31, 2016, but called for the school district to take the lead in deciding the fate of the oil well. If school officials want to extend Venoco's contract to keep the oil revenue flowing, Mirisch said "there is a moral imposition upon [the council] to help them restore their revenue."

School board member Steve Fenton said that before the oil lease issue was addressed, the council should have finished negotiations on the next  in which Beverly Hills pays the district rent so that city activities can be held on school grounds. 

"The fact that [the council] put a 2016 issue of the oil lease ahead of the more pressing 2012 issue for BHUSD—the Joint Powers Agreement—speaks volumes," Fenton said Wednesday.

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red richmond September 29, 2011 at 02:21 AM
I am sure this is not over. Veneco will raise the ante when it really comes time to remediate the oil site. It will cost millions to clear decades of toxic waste, and it would be in Veneco's interest to offer more to "buy" Beverly Hills in terms of payout.
mac September 29, 2011 at 02:52 AM
Does everyone who attended BHHS from 1976 until now have cancer? 50% 40% 15%? And does the desperate need for energy that can be used now,not next century and that doesn't come from the Middle East count as a reason beyond money.
Barry Brucker September 29, 2011 at 11:18 PM
The City Council made one of the most significant votes in its history on Tuesday. By prohibiting any extensions of the Venoco Oil drilling lease at the BHHS school site after expiration in 2016, the decision of four council members (Bosse / Brien / Brucker and Gold) sent a clear message that children’s health comes before royalty dollars and set the stage to finally remove the oil extraction plant adjacent to the school 's ball field. At their joint meeting in August 2011, all elected members of the City Council and Board of Education agreed that an oil production facility was an incompatible land use for Beverly Hills High School. In fact, the State Fire Code prohibits any new oil drilling within 300 feet of any school campus. Yet, two School Board members (Fenton and Korbatov) have suggested they would still consider extending the drilling lease beyond 2016 unless the City reimburses the schools for future lost royalty revenue. Steven Fenton went so for to suggest that the vote was simply “emotional”. As a parent, protecting the health and safety of all children at the High School is an emotional issue. And as your Mayor and on behalf of our City Council, ensuring the health, safety and welfare of our students and staff at Beverly High is responsible governance. Barry Brucker, Mayor
John Mirisch September 30, 2011 at 03:42 AM
The above is the letter that the Mayor published in Friday's edition of the BH Courier: http://www.bhcourier.com/downloads/093011Fissue.pdf (p 30). One has to distinguish between doing the right thing and doing it in the right way; getting somewhere and how one gets there. I, too, feel that oil drilling is an incompatible use at our high school, but I am concerned about the way in which the ordinance was passed. It disrespected the School Board's request for more time, despite the fact that oil extraction isn't scheduled to end until 2017. It didn't take into account the concerns of some residents who were asking for more scientific data. And, ultimately, the Council took a decision which will likely lead to the schools' losing around a million dollars a year -- money which is sorely needed in our classrooms, now more than ever. I asked for a commitment from the Council to ensure that our land-use decision would not negatively impact the schools. Unfortunately, this suggestion was rejected with the end result that the City left the schools in the lurch. This was not and is not acceptable to me. While I understand and support the decision not to renew the Venoco contract, not showing the schools the respect they deserve, not giving them more time and not making a commitment to protect them financially was plain wrong. Clearly, the process was not deliberative and while the Council may have done the right thing, we did not do it right. And that's just not good enough.


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