Oil Flows 'Confidentially' in L.A.

Urban Oilfields in Disguise

Petroleum is serious business in California and is as much a part of the state’s genealogy as starlets, freeways and movie stars turned governors -- maybe more so.

In fact, the petroleum industry has been California’s number one export through the years and historically the most profitable industry in the southern part of the state.

Correcting what he thinks is the common misconception of what made California what it is, Stephen Testa, executive officer of the State Mining and Geology Board of California, says, that “the great city of L.A. was built on oil -- not gold or the entertainment industry.”

Further, Testa, who has taught hazardous waste management, geology and mineralogy at California State University at Fullerton and petroleum environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, says the discovery of the oilfields in Los Angeles was the single most important moment in the history of petroleum in California.

It is a history filled with prostitutes, charlatans, extortionists and robber barons -- as well as some really unsavory characters.

Not surprising, then, that the relationship between the state and oil has always been somewhat ambivalent.

As attorney for the petroleum industry, Bruce Webster, once commenting to Los Angeles magazine about an oilfield, said, “They ruined a perfectly good oilfield by building a city on top of it.”

Boom Times

It started with a bubbling crude, as the noted oil expert Jed Clampett once explained.

Seeps were many and indigenous people used the tar to waterproof their canoes. The most famous seep was found in La Brea, in the southern part of the state, which for thousands of years had trapped animals looking for food.

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Petroleum is serious business in California and is as much a part of the state’s genealogy as starlets, freeways and movie stars turned governors -- maybe more so.

In fact, the petroleum industry has been California’s number one export through the years and historically the most profitable industry in the southern part of the state.

Correcting what he thinks is the common misconception of what made California what it is, Stephen Testa, executive officer of the State Mining and Geology Board of California, says, that “the great city of L.A. was built on oil -- not gold or the entertainment industry.”

Further, Testa, who has taught hazardous waste management, geology and mineralogy at California State University at Fullerton and petroleum environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, says the discovery of the oilfields in Los Angeles was the single most important moment in the history of petroleum in California.

It is a history filled with prostitutes, charlatans, extortionists and robber barons -- as well as some really unsavory characters.

Not surprising, then, that the relationship between the state and oil has always been somewhat ambivalent.

As attorney for the petroleum industry, Bruce Webster, once commenting to Los Angeles magazine about an oilfield, said, “They ruined a perfectly good oilfield by building a city on top of it.”

Boom Times

It started with a bubbling crude, as the noted oil expert Jed Clampett once explained.

Seeps were many and indigenous people used the tar to waterproof their canoes. The most famous seep was found in La Brea, in the southern part of the state, which for thousands of years had trapped animals looking for food.

There were four distinct periods in the early history of California oil, all of which were steps in the path to the state’s modern industry standing:

  • The early reconnaissance (1849-64).
  • California’s initial oil boom (1865-66).
  • The doldrums (1866-75).
  • The revitalization period (1875-1900).

The discovery and development of the Los Angeles City oilfield in 1892 would lead to the discovery of numerous other fields throughout the Los Angeles Basin. During the early 1920s California became the most oil productive state in the country, and by 1923 one of every five barrels of oil produced in the United States was extracted from the Los Angeles Basin.

Over 3.4 billion barrels of oil have been produced from fields in the LA Basin since the first discovery.

While there had been some drilling in the north of the state near San Francisco, the major action was down south.

In 1892, two mineral prospectors named Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield were in the downtown area of Los Angeles when they saw the wheels of their cart were coated in tar.

Doheny and Canfield soon discovered the Los Angeles Field after drilling to a depth of 140 meters (460 feet) at the corner of Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard, near present day Dodger Stadium. The story is they used what for the time was considered state of the art technology -- the sharpened end of a eucalyptus tree.

Within two years of their find, 80 wells were producing oil in the area. By 1897, the number of wells increased to 500.

Doheny, who would soon become a millionaire, is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal, an oilfield in Wyoming that involved questionable dealings between the Department of Interior, the sitting Wyoming senator and Doheny, who was eventually acquitted.

The most successful oilman of the time, though, wasn’t really of oil and wasn’t a man; Emma Summers, a music teacher, was an investor, and by 1900 she controlled half the production in the original Los Angeles Field. She became known as “California’s Petroleum Queen.”

In 1900, four million barrels were produced. By 1910 the figure had grown to 77 million barrels. Then, inexplicably, production slowed, until three major fields were discovered in rapid succession -- Huntington Beach (1920), Santa Fe Springs (1921) and the biggest of them all, the Signal Hill (or Long Beach) Field in 1921.

Time magazine wrote in 1926:

The Standard Oil Co. of California is a complete cycle in the oil industry. It is the largest individual producer of crude oil in the U.S. and dominates the marketing of petroleum products along the west coast of both Americas.

An Uncertain Future?

As colorful as its history was, petroleum in California -- particularly southern California -- has always been a tough love for the communities in which it operated.

The population of the city of Los Angeles doubled between 1890 and 1900, then tripled again between 1900 and 1910. As people and industry jockeyed for land, an uneasy peace was agreed to. In the 1930s and ‘40s, to appease residents who neither liked the noise, sight or smell, wells were soundproofed with vinyl-coated glass cloth with one-inch sheet fiberglass filling to decrease the noise.

As the state’s population exploded in the second half of the century, architects had to find even more ways to camouflage the drilling for petroleum products -- and are still finding them today.

According to Susanne Garfield, media and public outreach director of the California Energy Commission, the latest 2006 Energy Information Administration figures indicate California ranks third in the nation among oil producing states -- behind Texas and Alaska -- if offshore operations are excluded.

It ranks fourth overall (behind Louisiana, Texas and Alaska) when offshore operations are included. 

Still, the state last year had to import about 42 percent of its oil from foreign countries.

Today, California refines more than 1.9 million barrels of crude per day, ranking it third highest in the nation. Not surprisingly, considering its nearly 30 million people, the state ranks first in the United States in gasoline consumption and second in jet fuel consumption.

Testa, who also is president and founder of Testa Environmental Corporation, believes the problems that the industry and the state face now will be those they face 50 years from now.

“It’s a green state (actually the southern portion is rather brownish and dry), but who’s taking notes?”

Apparently voters.

California is the only oil producing state that does not collect drilling royalties, so a bill was proposed last year, Proposition 87, that would force oil companies to pay taxes for drilling privileges until the state raised $4 billion, which was to be used for alternative fuel research. You would think that California, known for its eco-friendly environment and ferocious green movement, would have passed the measure overwhelmingly -- especially considering oil company profits of the past year or two.

The same electorate, though, which requires oil producers to plant palm trees and install night lighting to hide their wells and derricks, defeated the measure handily.

As to whether the best, brightest days are ahead or behind California’s petroleum industry, Testa is philosophical.

“Let’s just say the bulb still works when you flip the switch.”

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