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Revisiting the Offshore Oil Drilling Fight

By Denny Freidenrich

By Denny FrieidenrichThirty years ago this month, I received the call of a lifetime. I was asked to coordinate public opposition to offshore oil drilling along the Orange County coastline. Mind you, these were the go-go days of the Reagan administration, so I fully expected this campaign to be a one-sided affair. Turns out I was completely wrong. Despite the Gipper’s popularity here, Republicans were just as opposed to drilling as Democrats were. But more about that later.

After I agreed to represent the cities of San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Newport and Huntington Beach, I learned I also would be representing the Orange County Board of Supervisors, too.  My clients’ collective thinking was this: If the “fight” to prevent oil drilling was going to be successful, it had to include all the residents of Orange County, not just the lucky few who lived at the beach.

One of the first things I did was reach out to the mayors in the county. Virtually all of them were Republicans, but they agreed to join our campaign because they knew offshore oil drilling came with more risks than rewards. In the end, 22 mayors and all of the members of the Board of Supervisors promised they would appear at a public hearing, chaired by then Interior Secretary Donald Hodel and lobby against the administration’s proposal.

True to their word, every single one of them showed up and challenged the secretary. At one point, while Supervisor Harriett Wieder was testifying, she had a wheelbarrow full of postcards unceremoniously dumped in front of Mr. Hodel.  The chair of the board then said something on the order of, “Please, Mr. Secretary, don’t turn your back on these 14,000 Orange County residents who oppose your plan.”

They weren’t the only ones who were against it. Unbeknownst to most, several of the county’s most successful business leaders quietly were using back-door channels to communicate their concerns directly to the White House. I don’t know if President Reagan ever responded to his powerful friends, but I do know this: their willingness to contact key people close to the Oval Office played a role in the administration giving up on offshore oil drilling.

(That, and the tenacity of a handful of local elected officials, like Laguna’s Bob Gentry, who, long after the public hearing was over, traveled many times to Washington to lobby the county’s case before Congress.)

Over the years, I’ve been asked what my most satisfying political campaign was.  “Winning” the offshore oil fight always will be No. 1 in my book, ahead of publishing the Andy Warhol portrait of Jane Fonda in 1982, or helping Barack Obama in 2007, when few people believed he could beat his Democratic Party rival.


Why the offshore drilling campaign?  Because people really cared about what was at stake. That point was driven home one evening when a young lady I barely knew walked up to me in the grocery store and said, “You’ve got to win this fight for everyone shopping here tonight.”

I was floored by her comment. It made a lasting impression on me. I wish I could tell her how much those words meant at the time. What would I say to her now if I could?  First, I never forgot what you said; and second, your encouragement made me a better person.

The Obama administration’s call to drill in the Arctic and the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara serve as present-day reminders of why so many of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, opposed the Reagan administration’s offshore drilling plan 30 years ago. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that first call provided me oh-so many years ago.


Denny Freidenrich first moved to Laguna Beach in 1970.  He was an original member of the Laguna Beach Citizens Alliance, and a founding member of the county’s nonpartisan Von Strobel Breakfast Group.  In the mid-1980s, he created the first two young professionals’ support organizations in OC — the Contemporary Club at the former Newport Harbor Art Museum and Center 500 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

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