THUMS an Oilman's Island Paradise

Attractive 'Launch Pads' to Find Oil

For many outside the oil industry, the term scenic oil island may be something of an oxymoron, on the order of concerned banker or designer t-shirt.

But in Long Beach, Calif., there’s a 42-acre oilfield -- offshore, in plain view of tourists, port traffic and beach lovers -- with 175-foot-high drilling towers and 1,100 wells that penetrate a vast underground.

It may well be the most unique -- and beautiful -- oil drill site in America.

Of course, you wouldn’t know by looking at it.

Which is the point.

It’s the city of Long Beach’s THUMS Island project, an approach at development of the prolific Wilmington Field that five major oil companies (Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell -- T.H.U.M.S.) undertook to:

  • Provide oil.
  • Not offend the aesthetic sensitivities of oil industry detractors -- or anyone else, for that matter.

Why the fuss?

According to the city of Long Beach and the state of California regulations and guidelines, oil installations, drilling towers and rigs have to be constructed to blend into the environment. In short, structures whose DNA doesn’t lend itself to disguise, camouflage and sound-proofing have to be designed to do more than just pump oil.

They have to look like they’re doing something else or, more to the point, like nothing at all.

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For many outside the oil industry, the term scenic oil island may be something of an oxymoron, on the order of concerned banker or designer t-shirt.

But in Long Beach, Calif., there’s a 42-acre oilfield -- offshore, in plain view of tourists, port traffic and beach lovers -- with 175-foot-high drilling towers and 1,100 wells that penetrate a vast underground.

It may well be the most unique -- and beautiful -- oil drill site in America.

Of course, you wouldn’t know by looking at it.

Which is the point.

It’s the city of Long Beach’s THUMS Island project, an approach at development of the prolific Wilmington Field that five major oil companies (Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell -- T.H.U.M.S.) undertook to:

  • Provide oil.
  • Not offend the aesthetic sensitivities of oil industry detractors -- or anyone else, for that matter.

Why the fuss?

According to the city of Long Beach and the state of California regulations and guidelines, oil installations, drilling towers and rigs have to be constructed to blend into the environment. In short, structures whose DNA doesn’t lend itself to disguise, camouflage and sound-proofing have to be designed to do more than just pump oil.

They have to look like they’re doing something else or, more to the point, like nothing at all.

Further, in the case of Long Beach, wellheads and pipelines must be located below ground level to ensure that the islands enhance the appearance of both harbor and skyline.

So, the trick is for these well operations to find peace among the various -- and constantly changing -- local aesthetic sensibilities.

Under My THUMS

The battle lines in California in general and southern California in particular between those who favor more oil exploration versus those who want more environmental protection are well drawn. For every Greenpeace contributor, there is the energy advocate who sees an untapped well.

For most, THUMS is the best template for a truce.

AAPG member Stephen Testa, executive officer of the State Mining and Geology Board of California, says the facility is the “exception, not the rule.”

By restricting the development to offshore facilities the city of Long Beach has been able to develop the field, which actually underlies the convention center where the AAPG annual convention will be held.

The four islands that comprise THUMS -- Grissom, White, Chaffee and Freeman, all named after NASA astronauts who died in training accidents -- are located about a mile offshore in Long Beach Harbor. Each island is approximately 10 acres and, in keeping with local regulations and tastes, is equipped with an irrigation system; palm, oleanders, sandalwood, figs and acacia trees; and sound proofed and camouflaged oil drilling derricks.

There’s even an aquarium nearby.

Additionally, abstract sculptures and waterfalls, some as high as 45 feet, are offset by other landscaping and night lighting.

Specifically, the islands were constructed using 640,000 tons of boulders and 3.2 million cubic yards of sand. The boulders, weighing up to five tons each, rest on the shallow harbor bottom and form a perimeter for each island. THUMS also injects reclaimed city water to maintain reservoir pressure.

More than 1,200 wells have been drilled from the islands, according to Occidental, which has operated THUMS since 2000. THUMS is the largest crude oil producer in the Los Angeles area, with a combined daily production rate of 38,000 barrels of oil and 11 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

THUMS has helped make the Wilmington Oil Field -- the third largest field ever found in the United States -- one of the most productive fields per acre the world has ever known.

And it is virtually invisible from the shore.

My Sweet Embraceable Fuel

One historian told the Honolulu Advisor newspaper that the field is a “prime example of the aesthetic mitigation of technology.”

To some, like architectural historian Kurt G.F. Helfrich, THUMS represents the compromise between industry and the environment, which Helfrich describes as the moment those communities, especially in southern California, went from rejection of technology to the adaptation of it.

This psychological journey, if you will, leaves people like Testa somewhat nostalgic.

“Early postcards ... illustrate how society used to celebrate its industries -- yes, including the petroleum industry, knowing that this industry supported its community,” he said. “Now we camouflage our rigs, but we still do not communicate well with the general public.”

The industry, though, does seem to be getting better at it.

THUMS was the first upstream oil and gas producer in California to join the California Climate Action Registry, an environmental group looking at climate change, specifically greenhouse gases. Occidental will now report all emissions from its operations, both offshore and on.

“THUMS is taking an important step in demonstrating environmental stewardship,” said Diane Wittenberg, president of the California Climate Action Registry, during the announcement. “We hope other oil and gas producers within the state will soon follow.”

More importantly than just its cosmetic advances, though, is this: in its 40-year history, THUMS has not experienced a single pipeline leak.

Frank Komin, facility president and general manager, added that “in addition to investing millions of dollars to install pollution limiting equipment throughout our operations, we are working to help meet California’s energy needs by developing a long term supply of clean burning natural gas.”

Specifically, Occidental operates the eastern offshore section of the Wilmington. The field, discovered in 1932, is estimated to have three billion barrels of oil at its discovery and has poured more than $4 billion into California’s economy.

THUMS does have its share of challenges, though, namely the field is about 90 percent depleted, according to John Jepson, a geologist with the city of Long Beach Gas and Oil Department.

The field will revert to city control when the wells dry up.

“Here in southern California,” he said, “we have such a diverse economy and so many people (an estimated 10 million) that few people know of the local oil industry.”

THUMS, he says, “is a great example of the pressures facing the local oil industry. This field is 85 years old, has produced almost a billion barrels, has millions of barrels left to recover, but the wells cannot compete with properties worth millions.

“It makes for a very interesting discussion of land use,” he said -- regardless of how many palm and acacia trees you plant.