To the chagrin of other local officials and conservationists, the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier, CA, has chosen to use funds originally earmarked to preserve open space in the midst of urban sprawl to instead tap a long-idle oilfield in the middle of densely populated Southern California.

Four lawsuits have been filed to block Whittier’s plans, including one by Los Angeles County. The suits were recently taken off the court calendar, however, when the presiding judge in the case was disqualified, according to local news reports.

As has happened in other urban encircled areas in the region, the prospect of $100/bbl oil supplies are attracting cash-strapped local governments and independent exploration and production (E&P) companies (see Shale Daily, June 26, 2012).

At the end of January, Whittier city officials, using $9.3 million in funds designated for conservation of open lands, authorized Santa Barbara-based Matrix Oil to clear a two-acre test drill on land the suburb nearly two decades ago purchased from Chevron Corp. At the time oil was selling for about $12/bbl. The area now is highly urbanized with more than 10 million residents.

The 30-day approval “authorizes Matrix to only remove vegetation — it does not permit site grading, nor drilling activity at this point,” City Manager Jeffrey Collier said in a Jan. 30 letter. Ultimately, Matrix will be required to obtain additional reviews and approvals, Collier said.

Despite allegations by county and environmental officials that Whittier violated the intended use of the tax dollars, the suburb gave Matrix permission to do the site work and abandoned well identification as part of a proposed renewed drilling program on the old oilfield property.

City officials contend that Matrix will only have a footprint on seven acres of the leased land, and the city estimates it may get as much as $100 million in annual royalties, or nearly double its $55 million budget for the drilling project.

The Los Angeles County voter proposition that provided funds for the land purchase did not address mineral rights, according to Whittier Mayor Pro Tem Bob Henderson, who told the Los Angeles Times the city will still be protecting the “birds and the bees, and deer still run around and little kids are out there for science education.”

Los Angeles County is contending that if the courts allow the oil to be produced, the county — not the city — should get the revenue and apply it to developing more open space. A county hearing on the issue is scheduled for Feb. 21.

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