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Former Huntington Beach Mayor Still Pumping Oil After 40 Years

 

Standard Gasoline Co photo of Huntington Beach Oil processing plant #8, January 1930.


Huntington Beach, Calif.― "Oil City"
 

A few days ago I stood in a spot where, off my left shoulder, no fewer than 20 wells were slowly pumping oil. To my right, two derricks were doing the same less than 2 miles from the coast.

I wasn't visiting the Middle East or Mexico. This was less than a mile from Main Street in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Offshore oil production isn't a debating point in Surf City, USA. It's part of the landscape.

As gasoline prices continue to soar, offshore exploration is an increasingly attractive option to North Carolinians, a point not missed by incumbents up for re-election. U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole have recently sponsored legislation that would open up North Carolina's coast to drilling if the state approves.

Environmentalists vehemently oppose these bills, but then, they oppose just about everything. The more politically potent opposition comes from the coastal tourism and real estate industries, which fear offshore exploration would kill business, even though it would be farther from shore than it is in California.

If those fears were valid, Huntington Beach would be a ghost town.

The day I visited, the beach was full by noon, including the strip right in front of Emma and Ella, the names locals have given to the two oil derricks clearly in sight of sunbathers and surfers. Ken Gordon brought August, age 7, and Haven, 3, for an outing of boogie boarding and sand castle construction. Gordon wasn't concerned about exposing his children to impending ecological disaster.

"Look at the record. These [oil derricks] have been here 30, 40 years with little problems. The beaches are clean here. We've never had a spill, except one that was caused by a tanker" (that ran over its anchor), Gordon told me. "At some point the issue boils down to how much do you want to depend on foreign countries for oil? We'd be paying $6 a gallon [for gas] if we didn't have offshore drilling."

Outside of paying higher prices at the pump, Gordon's stake in offshore drilling is purely recreational. Jack Clapp's livelihood is dependent on a clean, alluring coast. The 72-year-old runs "Dwight's," a combination beachfront fast food stand, bike rental service and gift shop. His father started the family-run business in 1932.

"I'm not so sure that putting another couple of wells out there [in the Pacific] or scattering them along the coast would stop people from coming here," Clapp said. "This beach is described as pristine, but you have oil wells, and that's been accepted. If more wells were brought in, I think the acceptance would still be there."

During our conversation, Clapp had to talk louder to be heard above the growing din of people streaming to the ocean. Some carried surfboards.

Among the surfers was Gary Johnson, a fit man who has shared the water with Emma and Ella for 45 years. In the 1960s, seepage was a problem, he said. But since the '70s Huntington Beach surfing has been oil free, save the tanker spill. Still, Johnson opposes more domestic offshore exploration.

"We need to find other solutions to global oil prices other than putting up more of these things," he said pointing to the derricks. "They're ugly. There are $2, $3, $4 million homes being built along the ridge, and I don't think they [property owners] want to look out and see oil structures."

Johnson has a point. One owner whose ocean-view home directly overlooks an oil field told me he preferred a bay view. He also admitted the lack of it didn't prevent him from building some pretty fancy digs.

Nothing has. Living literally next to well-landscaped or disguised oil wells hasn't slowed property values. Huntington Beach real estate veteran Natalie Kotsch has some advice for her North Carolina coastal colleagues should offshore energy exploration become reality here:

"Don't be afraid. It won't hurt property values," Kotsch said. "There are so many mitigation measures that the economic benefits of natural gas and oil [exploration] off your coast are probably very worthwhile."

To those who doubt her assessment, Kotsch issues this challenge: "Come by for a visit, and I'll prove it."

If you plan to take Kotsch up on her invitation, my advice is to do it quickly. Huntington Beach accommodations are very hard to come by this time of year.