The young woman in the native American face paint on my TV displayed the same mixture of anger and distress one would expect if she’d just seen a coyote snatch her Chihuahua from the backyard. As the interview unfolded however, I learned the source of her anguish wasn’t a marauding dingo but rather President Trump’s executive order opening the way for completion of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Stranger still, as I watched (seriously, how could I look away?) I realized she wasn’t a teepee dwelling environmental warrior camped out on the frigid plains of the upper midwest. She Stands With a Fist Against Pipelines was staging her protest just a few blocks from my office in balmy downtown Los Angeles.
The offending pipeline was half-a-continent away.
For most the face-painted protestor’s behavior is a bit extreme, but in Los Angeles, it’s not atypical. There is absolutely nothing that brings certain Angelenos out of their yurts faster - or angrier - than oil.
I know this because I’ve seen it firsthand.
In 2012 my 1.4 square mile city of Hermosa Beach (where I served on the city council) faced a $750M lawsuit by an oil company for lost profits and damages. To put this number in perspective, if we had instead been asked to purchase the Los Angeles Kings hockey team as compensation for the oil company’s alleged losses, we could have done that and still had $300M left over.
The lawsuit was over a contract Hermosa Beach signed that allowed the oil company to slant drill from city property out into the Santa Monica Bay. A few years later the city changed its mind and reneged on the agreement. The oil company, unable to do what a signed contract said it could do, sued.
The litigation dragged on for more than a decade and in 2012 we were on the eve of trial. The prospects were grim because the spectrum of probable outcomes following trial stretched anywhere from crippling judgments to municipal bankruptcy and disincorporation.
Miraculously, a colleague and I were able to negotiate a settlement on the eve of trial that allowed the city to pay a small portion of the oil company’s claim in exchange for an agreement to put the oil drilling question back on the ballot.
From almost any angle, this result was a victory for the city. If voters wanted to allow drilling and enjoy the royalties that would flow into the city’s coffers they could vote “Yes.” If they didn’t, they could vote “No.” Regardless, the settlement reduced the community’s liability from approximately $105,000/per household to $3,000/per household, and we could quit shoveling hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into the litigation furnace. Bankruptcy was also off the table, as was disincorporation. The settlement was a Godsend.
Within two weeks of the settlement being finalized, a cadre of incensed residents who preferred rolling the legal dice on municipal bankruptcy and disincorporation to the prospect of oil drilling began showing up at city council meetings.
As time passed the ranks of anti-oil protesters grew larger and soon became fixtures at our meetings. Some sat with their young children - hand drawn “NO OIL DRILLING” signs across their laps - while others gave impassioned speeches about the looming calamity if residents voted to allow drilling. The rancor seemed to feed on itself, and it didn’t take long before the rhetoric reached a fever pitch. One leader of the anti-oil protesters, let’s call him Hermosa John Brown, was particularly vexed by the settlement agreement.
Students of the American Civil War may remember John Brown was the fire-and-brimstone anti-slavery crusader with wild eyes, a flowing white beard, and the ferocity in his beliefs of an Old Testament prophet. Hermosa John Brown, who actually resembled his historical namesake, preached with equal fervor about a coming “civil war” in Hermosa Beach.
Like it or not, he inveighed, forcing an election on this will create a kind of civil war. Everyone will have to pick a side: black or green. Substitute “slave” or “free” for black or green, and it could have been a speech in the Kansas Territory from 1859. Hermosa John Brown laid out how the anti-oil protesters would carry their fight to local businesses (many businesses will be identified as either against oil, or not) and into the schools (what does little Suzy do when she learns that Billy’s mommy and daddy support drilling that is ruining her neighborhood?). Hermosa John Brown said Hermosa Beach will be torn apart by the unfair election you’re forcing upon us, placing us into the jaws of Big Oil.
But nobody from the oil company or anyone who supported oil drilling (or was merely not actively opposed to it) threatened their neighbor’s businesses. Nobody who was willing to consider the potential windfall the royalties drilling might bring to the city had singled out anyone else’s children in school. These were things only Hermosa John Brown and the anti-oil protesters were doing.
The voters eventually voted down the possibility of oil drilling in Hermosa Beach, but not before the anti-oil protesters and people like Hermosa John Brown waged war against any business, person, or group that opposed them.
So if you’re talking about oil - whether drilling for it in Hermosa Beach or moving it through pipelines in Standing Rock, North Dakota - be advised - the anti-oil natives are everywhere.
And they’re restless.
*Patrick “Kit” Bobko is a former Mayor and Councilman from Hermosa Beach, California. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and Air Force veteran who is currently practicing law in Los Angeles. This spring, Kit will be publishing a book recounting his experiences in local government. Read more at KitBobko.net.