She Helped Save Her Town. Then She Finished High School.

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Above Photo: Erica Fernandez in 2007 | Photo: Brower Youth Awards

Residents along the Ventura Coast are no strangers to oil and gas development. Oil drilling has been a part of life along the Santa Barbara Channel since 1896, with gigantic oil rigs sprouting offshore in the late 1960s.

But when an Australian energy company proposed to build a floating terminal 13 miles off Point Dume into a massive terminal for imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and send the gas through the working-class community of Oxnard via a 36-inch pipeline, that was a step too far.

That company had friends in the local business community, the support of energy-hungry Californians, and a warchest of many millions of dollars. But the LNG project was doomed at the outset, because the opposition had a secret weapon: local teenager Erica Fernandez.

The LNG pipeline, proposed by Australian conglomerate BHP Billiton, had been rejected by the wealthier communities of Malibu and Ventura early in the planning stages. Ships would unload their LNG — imported from Australia’s gas reserves off its West Coast — at the terminal, and the supercooled gas would be piped to a “regasification” plant that would convert the fuel for distribution to SoCalGas’s customers. The Australian LNG piped through Oxnard would have supplied about ten percent of California’s natural gas consumption.

But the LNG pipeline’s proposed route would have taken it through Oxnard’s poorest neighborhoods. That earned it opposition from environmental activists, who pointed out that the proposed project’s neighbors — largely Latino and not particularly affluent — would be exposed to a disproportionate share of the estimated 280 tons of pollutants the project would generate each year. The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center was working to organize opposition, just as it had to a 1980s-era proposal to build a similar terminal at Point Concepcion. The Sierra Club’s coastal campaign was also organizing opposition to the project.

That’s where things stood when Hueneme High School student Erica Fernandez heard about the proposal while volunteering at a beach cleanup.

Fernandez was no stranger to working hard. She’d started working at age five, in the farm fields of her native Michoacan. She recalled being struck by the relative luxury when she learned, on reaching the United States aged 10, that she was only expected to do well in school and not to hold down a job at the same time.

Concerned about her father’s increasing respiratory ailments, Fernandez took the pipeline project and its likely impact on local air quality personally. She began working with the Coastal Alliance, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups to oppose BHP Billiton’s pipeline, organizing weekly protests outside the company’s Oxnard office attended by as many as 250 of her schoolmates.

When Fernandez was 16, her father’s health had affected the family’s finances to the point where her parents moved to the less-expensive Tulare County community of Strathmore. 170 miles north. Fernandez decided to stay and fight the pipeline. Working two jobs to support herself while attending school, Fernandez continued her organizing work while living in a friend’s garage.

Fernandez became known for her ability to bring disparate groups of people together in common cause, a trait well-displayed — along with her facility at public speaking — in formal remarks to the California State Lands Commission in April 2007;

After hearing from more than 2,000 pipeline opponents the Lands Commission voted 2-1 to oppose the project, as did the California Coastal Commission a couple weeks later.

Hernandez didn’t work alone, of course: the communities of Oxnard and Malibu came together in an inspiring cross-cultural coalition to oppose the BHP Billiton pipeline. Opponents of the project numbered in the thousands.

But that number might well have been a lot smaller if it wasn’t for the young woman from Michoacan with the ferocious drive. Fernandez’s work wasn’t just lauded in her community; she was also recognized on a national scale in 2007, the year BHP Billiton’s project was spiked. That’s the year Fernandez won the coveted Brower Youth Award, awarded each year to outstanding youth environmental activists. Here’s her acceptance speech:

That was just her way of getting started. Since 2007, Fernandez has graduated high school at the top of her class, attended Stanford with help from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, and is now pursuing a law degree with the aim of specializing in environmental law.

Fernandez is, in other words, a fitting subject for our final profile in this series on California’s environmental activist women, and you can bet we’ll be hearing from her again. It’s just like she says in her favorite quotation, from role model Cesar Chavez: