In the under-appreciated “The Two Jakes,” a 1990 film in part about the burgeoning oil deposits in the Los Angeles Basin circa 1940, we hear the line: " ... you might think you know what's going on around here, but ... you don't."
Times don't change all that much.
Unlike, say, drilling in the fields of Oklahoma, where you see what you get, the drilling rigs in the L.A. Basin masquerade as buildings, towers, and high school landmarks that also carry with them a labyrinth of regulations, perceptions and aesthetics.
As you can imagine, the competing interests between the demands of a booming population and the need for the development and production of oil fields to satisfy that booming population is as much a part of the story in Los Angeles and the surrounding region as how much oil actually comes out of the ground.
It began, oddly enough, in 1892 on Glendale Boulevard, where legend has it that Edward L. Doheny discovered oil underneath the wheels of his horse-drawn cart. Doheny borrowed some money, bought 1,000 acres near Echo Park, and started digging.
Within years, more than 2,000 wells would dot the landscape and the Los Angeles region would soon become one of the major oil-producing areas of the world. The prevalence and importance of the oil industry in the region was summed up by a film critic in the 1940s who said, "When you see a group of movie people talking on the set, you don't know whether they're discussing an oil well or a movie."
And while Doheny gets most of the credit for the discovery of oil in Los Angeles, Native Americans and Spanish explorers were aware of the tar pits as early as 1769. (The famous La Brea tar pits are located a few miles from the first oil fields.)
It would be nice to say the rest is history, but it has also been about politics, environment, greed and city planning.
To this day, the Los Angeles Basin has the most productive fields in the state; in all, it contains 14 major fields – and that’s only the structurally trapped hydrocarbons.
Unfortunately, the state consumes more oil than it produces, which puts increasing pressure to find more areas to drill.
Jon Kuespert, geological manager, BreitBurn Energy Management Company, says it's pretty simple.
"The Los Angeles Basin has so much potential for exploration because of the combination of source and reservoir rocks, and trapping configurations. Even though the basin has 40-plus fields, 4,000-plus producing wells and over 100 years of production, this is still a basin with lots of potential."
He says with the advent of new technology, much more oil could be found.
Mark Twain said, "Invest in land. They're not building anymore" – which sums up one, and only one, of the problems about drilling for oil in the Los Angeles region.
While the Los Angeles basin remains productive, few major oil companies remain there, in part due to the environmental hurdles one must maneuver. As one Santa Fe, Calif., energy official pointed out, “Why drill in L.A. when you could drill in Saudi Arabia?”
Well, it's closer.
But in the middle of nowhere, drilling rigs can look like, well, rigs. In Los Angeles, though, city, state and county ordinances require the rigs be hidden.
It is a demanding, complicated endeavor, and Kuespert says the added costs to industry are significant.
"It's tough to answer since there are really not 'exploratory' operations going on,” he said. “I would say that drilling costs are at least 25 percent to 75 percent higher than in the rest of California."
Looks are Misleading
Local and county codes require the rigs, like children, to be neither seen nor heard. As such, the wells are enclosed in a building designed to eliminate noise and emissions, and to match the décor of the neighborhood.
The goal, it seems, is to hide the industry from the neighbors – and Kuespert said companies have gone to great lengths to accomplish that feat.
And it works.
"People, including my wife, have mistaken these operations for synagogues, office buildings, shopping centers or other 'normal' facilities," he said.
In Long Beach, oil producers at the Wilmington oil field, the fourth largest oil field in the continental United States, have erected four manmade islands in Long Beach Harbor designed to look like resorts rather than oil rigs.
Kuespert says they look, to some, "like strange moving condo buildings."
(Those attending the AAPG Annual Convention will get a good view of the Long Beach harbor operations; the convention center is almost on the water.)
At famed Beverly Hills High School – where celebrities' children have attended – a 150-foot oil derrick sits near the football field. Covered in hand-painted tiles, the rig looks like an art project constructed without adult supervision; however, it pumps 450 barrels of oil, flows 400,000 cubic feet of natural gas a day, and adds about $300,000 per year to the school’s general fund each year.
Ironically, the site at the school is the most famous of these urban facades, due to countless “90210” TV reruns and a suit brought by Erin Brockovich, ultimately dismissed, over whether there was any increase in cancer rates and respiratory ailments due to the rig's proximity to the school.
Kuespert, while admitting the need for such invisibility and seamlessness in the Los Angeles Basin, does think there's a double standard.
"If every supermarket advertised milk, bread and bottled water on a big sign in front of their store, they might get the same grief that the oil industry gets on a daily basis."