LOS ANGELES (AP) â€” The scene is more Texas than 90210: A towering, 107-foot rig pumps oil from the ground in the middle of Los Angeles, the smell of crude hanging heavy in the air.
Beverly Hills is just a block away, but at BreitBurn Energy Co. the must-have accessory isn't a Prada bag â€” it's a hard hat.
Now BreitBurn wants to expand one of the country's oddest oil drilling operations, doubling its output by restarting up to 30 wells in a two-block area. The city of Los Angeles supports the move, but the plan has divided the busy West Los Angeles neighborhood where BreitBurn is based.
The drilling site is in the middle of a dense and mostly Jewish, upper-middle-class residential neighborhood.
Steven Spielberg's mother, who owns a kosher restaurant across the street, calls BreitBurn ``wonderful neighbors.'' But a rabbi at a school a short walk away has organized protests of sign-waving students in yarmulkes.
A public elementary school that got a $10,000 check from BreitBurn displays a banner announcing it has been ``adopted'' by the company. A block away, a kindergarten has hung a sign that reads, ``Stop Oil Expansion.''
Currently, the company sets up the rig just 10 days a month and pumps 1,200 barrels a day. Under the plan, it will make the rig permanent and restart inactive wells, going to full-time production of 3,000 barrels a day. In return, the company will double the height of the 10-foot brick walls that enclose the site and switch from a diesel rig to a cleaner electric one.
Supporters of the expansion plan say it will modernize operations and cut down on noise and dangerous emissions. Opponents fear it will bring more noise, fumes and smells. An appeal by residents of last month's city approval will be heard by a zoning board May 23.
BreitBurn's isn't the only Southern California rig in an improbable location.
Remnants of a bygone era when big oil ruled Southern California, more than a dozen active drill sites now owned by small independent companies like BreitBurn dot Los Angeles County, tucked in back of buildings and hidden behind walls. There is one on the grounds of Beverly Hills High School and another across from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Nowadays, such operations would probably never get approval.
But BreitBurn's wells have been at the corner of Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive â€” ZIP code 90035 â€” since Occidental Petroleum sunk them in 1965, and the city cannot legally get rid of them, said City Councilman Mike Feuer, who lives a half-mile from the BreitBurn site.
All residents can do is make the best of a bad situation, and Feuer said BreitBurn's proposal to heighten the walls and switch to the electric engine would be an improvement.
A range of local, state and federal regulatory agencies support that view. California's Air Resources Board concluded that the project ``will not generate an increased risk to the public in the area.''
BreitBurn opponents aren't sure that's good enough.
``It seems apparent that there is clearly danger to children'' from the emissions, said Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman of Hillel Hebrew Academy. The proposed changes ``are only basically improving what was a very bad and unacceptable situation.''
Joann Hulkower, director of the nearby kindergarten, said some parents are so worried that they are taking their children out of area schools.
But BreitBurn's owners, Randall Breitenbach and Halbert Washburn, insisted they would have no qualms about sending their own young children to schools near the oil wells.
Opponents claim the company has bought off some members of the neighborhood with shallow acts of philanthropy like the check to the elementary school, free sandwiches during an informational session and the occasional bouquet of roses sent to neighbors at times of grief.
``This company has been working this neighborhood for the last four years very, very carefully,'' said Rae E. Drazin of Neighbors for a Safe Environment.
Countered BreitBurn: ``It's insulting to the community to think that BreitBurn for an $8 sandwich and a rose can buy them off.''