HERMOSA BEACH – In a significant victory for opponents of coastal oil drilling, an appeals court has ruled the city may ban ocean-tapping wells within city limits.
The California Court of Appeals overturned a 1998 trial court decision that said the city had violated a contract with Macpherson Oil Co. that allowed it to place “slant wells” just a few blocks from the beach.
If the oil company had been given the go-ahead to tap undersea oil pockets, it would have been the first slant oil drilling project in Santa Monica Bay since the 1950s, according to an attorney who represented a coalition of residents and environmental groups that appealed the initial court decision.
The battle over oil drilling has stirred emotions for nearly 70 years in Hermosa Beach, a picturesque beach town southwest of Los Angeles. City officials banned drilling in 1932 but voters approved lifting the ban in 1984 because the city needed money.
The city signed a lease in 1986 with Santa Monica-based Macpherson, and in 1998, after a lengthy process, the company received the needed approval to drill from the California Coastal Commission.
But in the meantime a citizens’ coalition called Hermosa Beach Stop Oil had helped sway public sentiment against the drilling. In 1995 voters passed a new drilling ban and in 1998 the City Council voted to stop the project, sending Macpherson to court to fight to keep it alive.
In sending the case back to the lower court Wednesday, the appeals court did not address whether the city can be held liable for damages to Macpherson, which has asked for $100 million in restitution.
Attorneys for Macpherson did not immediately return voice mail messages seeking comment early Friday.