When asked what they know about Livermore, Calif., most people think of the nuclear weapons laboratory with the largest lasers and computers, and some think of the oldest wine region in the state, but no one thinks of it as an oil producing region. Yet Livermore was the site of one of the earliest oil wells in California and still has a small, declining oil field just east of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In fact, 2019 is the 150th anniversary not only of the periodic chart and the first transcontinental railroad (which went through Livermore), but also the first oil well drilled near Livermore.
The first well was drilled in the spring of 1869 at the site of an explosion and oil seep caused by the 1868 earthquake on the Hayward Fault, which damaged buildings throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, killed 30 people, and was felt as far away as Nevada. This 10-feet deep well, just past the northeast edge of the current city limit, produced about five gallons of heavy oil per hour for a while, but was not sustained. Several more wells up to 200-feet deep were drilled in the area over the next 20 years, which produced oil shows, but no commercially viable production. Even now, rainwater in the street gutters in that area occasionally has an oil film.
This inauspicious beginning of Livermore oil exploration has an interesting connection to the 1960s television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Besides the obvious connection to a specific event causing an oil seep and subsequent drilling, Max Baer, Jr., who played Jethro on that show, is linked to Livermore. His father, Max Baer, Sr., grew up on a pig farm on the south side of town and went on to become a heavyweight boxing champion. Both father and son have ridden in the Livermore Rodeo parade, and Max Baer Park is the current site of the World Series of the Little League Intermediate Division. In addition, an earlier lightweight boxing champion, Battling Nelson, trained south of Livermore and was an investor in oil wells drilled in the early 1900s.
Promise and Disappointment
In the early 1900s, Livermore had a population of about 2,000 people, and city leaders thought that oil discoveries would make the town larger and prosperous, like Coalinga, Ventura, Bakersfield and Los Angeles. California had grown to be the largest oil producer in the country during that era, Spindletop notwithstanding. In fact, the Lakeview gusher near Bakersfield in 1910 was twice as large as Spindletop.
A dozen or so wells were drilled near oils seeps eight miles east of Livermore between 1885 and 1925, with promising but ultimately disappointing results. Four then-and-now photo pairs of this area are shown acompanying this article. The Alisal (“Darling”) and Independence wells were a source of great hope but ultimate disappointment. The Alisal well was the largest producer at 5 barrels per day – enough to run two drilling rigs. This early activity was near outcrops of the Cierbo Formation, which contains the 2-million-barrel Livermore oil field discovered decades later.
A steel tank from that era remains and iscurrently used to collect water for cattle. Diesel fuel to run the drill rigs was pulled up into the Altamont hills on muddy roads in such tanks by a steam tractor. The writing still visible on the end of the tank identifies it with the Associated Oil Company. Associated Oil was incorporated in San Francisco in 1901 to bring oil products from Bakersfield and built the Avon refinery (now owned and operated by Marathon Oil after its merger with Andeaver, formerly Tesoro).
After nearly 100 years and 80 non-productive wells, producible oil was finally discovered in January 1967 by McCulloch Oil Corporation between the previous two hotbeds of exploration at the intersection of the Greenville and Las Positas faults. The pay zone is the Greenville sands in the Miocene Cierbo Formation, which outcrop in the Altamont Hills and are the source of the widespread oil seeps. By isotopic analysis, the oil was sourced from an Eocene source rock contemporary to the Kreyenhagen and Nortonville Shales, most likely under Dublin and San Ramon a few million years ago after the rise of Mount Diablo. In its 50 years, the field has produced about 80 percent of its estimated 2 million barrels and is currently owned and operated by E&B Resources.
Even though it produces only 0.5 percent of Livermore’s oil consumption and is unknown to most Livermore residents, this field has become the center of a substantial political battle over the past couple years. As it went through renewal of a revised Environmental Protection Agency aquifer exemption permit and the Alameda County conditional use permits, many speakers who opposed these permits clearly did not understand the meaning of the technical words they used, including confusing “oil drilling” with “oil production.” Even though no aquifer contamination related to oil-field operations has been detected, operations were portrayed as a threat to local drinking water supplies. Ironically, the neighboring Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is an EPA superfund site, cleaning up both chlorinated solvent and gasoline leaks from both its operations and prior operations as a naval air base during World War II.
The story of this field continues to unfold. The EPA approved the revised aquifer exemption permit. The Alameda County supervisors voted to overturn the county zoning board extension of conditional use permits, and E&B Resources has filed suit in Federal court challenging that decision.