Liquid Gold: Southern California’s Oil and Natural Gas Production in the 20th Century

By Kali Staniec


In 1849, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in northern California sparked a push toward the Pacific Ocean, a chase for the romantic hope of making it big, quick, that would come to typify history’s perception of the American West. But to the south, the state was on the cusp of a grittier revolution, one that would give rise to the booming metropolis of Los Angeles itself. It was oil that would prove to be the lifeblood of the Hollywood industry, the car culture that would develop over the 20th century, and the sprawling city Southern California urban complex. To this day, in soundproofed enclosures scattered throughout the urban landscape and on drilling platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, wells continue to pump crude oil from deep under the earth and sea. Oil production has followed a cyclical trend, with fevered increases in production caused by discovery of new wells, implementation of new technology, and surges in demand, interspersed with drops in production when oil prices fell dramatically. Though attitude toward drilling and changes in markets have fluctuated over the years, oil production has remained irrevocably linked to life in Southern California.

The presence of oil in Southern California is no new information: before the area was colonized first by Spanish missionaries and later by Americans moving from the eastern states, native peoples used tar from seeps in the ground as a waterproofing material. But it wasn’t until the 1860s when so called “wildcatters” – oil pioneers drilling in areas not known to hold oil fields – began to strike oil throughout California’s central valley. In 1892 a young wildcatter named Edward L. Doheny and his business partner Charles Canfield drilled Los Angeles’ first well near present-day Dodger Stadium. Primitively bored 460 feet into the ground with a sharpened eucalyptus trunk, the well was soon producing around 10 barrels of oil per day, and would become the first of hundreds of wells making up the Los Angeles Oil Field, Southern California’s first site of commercial oil production (Through Time 7). Only 10 years later oil was being drawn from the Los Angeles Oil Field by more than 200 companies, and was the source of 50% of the state’s oil production. As of 2011, only one of these well remained functional.

By no means a perfected science at the time, oil prospecting looked much different than today. Wells originally only reached down hundreds of feet into the earth, while today’s wells go many thousands. The derricks – support structures around the well – were originally made of wood, not steel, and sprouted up with no attempt at concealment. In fact, with Los Angeles barely a budding city, the oil industry had free reign. It grew up right out of the residential areas, with derricks sharing streets with residential houses and chugging pumps. The first crude oil drawn was used to slick down the dusty streets; horse drawn wagons full of oil regularly tipped over, spilling their contents; blow-outs were common. The drilling itself was also a work in progress: not only did the first well developers not have a use for the natural gas that accompanied crude oil in wells, but they did not understand the importance of keeping it in the wells to keep pressure – and therefore oil flow – high (Spudding In 194). After drilling and initially high flow rates, many wells were reduced to producing only a couple barrels of oil a day after well operators let the natural gas escape to the atmosphere. The geology of the area could also prove problematic: with no thick, impervious layer of shale, there was little to separate water from being drawn up by wells, causing many to be abandoned completely. Over the years, the problems from noise, waste disposal, traffic, and odors began to take their toll on the expanding city.

Above: Union Oil Well No. 18 gushing in the Santa Fe Springs Oil Field, 1935. “Gushers” occurred when the high pressure of the fluids in the well forced oil to the surface. (Source: USC Digital Library)

As wildcat operations developed into distinct commercial oil fields around the turn of the century, a true oil boom launched, extending through the 1920s. At first centered around the giant fields in the Kern County area, in the post WWI 20’s focus shifted back to the Los Angeles Basin. Oil barons arose: Edward Doheny’s original $400 land lease for the first wells in the Los Angeles Oil Field would grow to millions of dollars in profit; a local music teacher named Emma Summers would become known as the “Oil Queen of California” when her Los Angeles drilling investments left her selling 50,000 barrels of crude a day. Even with oil fields like Brea-Olinda, Beverly Hills, West and East Coyote, Montebello, Richfield, and Santa Fe Springs pumping millions of barrels of oil out of the California basin, there was a slight decrease in post-war oil production following the huge thirst for oil during the war(America had provided 80% of the oil used by the Allied Powers). Some feared the downward trend would continue unless more sources were found. However, the success of previous oil discoveries allowed the industry to save itself, as an increasing number of students attended college to receive degrees in geology, inspired by the vast wealth the industry was poised to provide. Backed by their degrees, these newcomers to the industry turned their eyes to Southern California and the development of some of the richest oil fields in the country.

Enter Huntington Beach and Long Beach Oil Fields. The Standard Oil Company was the first to develop experimental wells in Huntington Beach, which was already laid out in small land parcels. Once drilling proved lucrative, the area was bought up by countless investors who haphazardly constructed derricks to extract as much oil as possible before their neighbors(who may only have been 100 feet away) did so first. Just to the north, the Alamitos #1 Well in the Signal Hill field erupted 114 feet into the air in 1921, heralding a rush to buy up neighboring land (Drilling 43). Within 2 years, Signal Hill was producing 1 out of every 3 barrels of oil in the state of California. With the crazed drive to pull the maximum amount of oil from the earth came the reluctance of well operators to take the time to develop ways to capture the gas as it escaped, leading to a budding problem: the use (or waste) of simultaneously occurring natural gas. Up until this time, gas was seen as a relatively useless byproduct. With the extreme number of wells in such close proximity, however, the Long Beach Oil Field was producing some 290 million cubic feet per day of natural gas — only 24% of which was being used for domestic and industrial purposes, while the rest was released to the atmosphere. The problem this created was two-fold. Not only was it a health and safety concern, but keeping gas in the wells was essential for the greatest ultimate, long-term recovery of oil without additional expenses.

Natural gas wasn’t used because it proved to be more of a nuisance than asset for many years. Gas companies demanded only gas that had been separated from its water content after it came out of the well (“dry gas”), but the separation process proved inefficient and unreliable. Even when gas did make it to a pipe problems ensued: due to pipes inevitably running by many fields, some individuals simply tapped into the pipes and helped themselves to the ready-to-use energy supply (Spudding In 198). At the time, there was insufficient knowledge of natural gas’s volumetric changes when it was mixed with other fluids for transportation, resulting in discrepancies at either end of the transportation scheme. The use of natural gas was further hindered by the refining process, which did not have the technology necessary to allow for widespread gas use. Still, as the city naturally expanded, more Angelenos began using gas to heat their homes, warm their water, and cook their food. It wasn’t until 1950 to 1965 that gas use jumped significantly as gas companies aggressively courted architects, builders, and homeowners throughout the southland.

(Source: Nehring)

While natural gas’s full potential would be more slowly realized, the post-World War II economy’s dependence on the oil industry confirmed that crude was there to stay. World War II, like World War I, saw a steady increase in oil production in California, following a steep decrease in production during the Great Depression. World War II caused two important developments in Southern California oil production. The first was to consistently push for more oil. After 1944, post-war oil demand was bolstered by the car culture that was springing up across the states, and by 1948 production had actually increased from the wartime high by 23% (Through Time 81). This level of oil consumption did not come without consequence, however. Mysterious infrastructure problems began appearing in and around the Long Beach Oil Field, with a string of cracked pipes and buckling railroad tracks. The land was sinking. As oil was being drawn from the ground, the combined geologic features of shallow oil depth, lack of reservoir pressure, and relatively flat reservoir arches underground combined to cause a total of 21 feet of subsidence at the deepest point, effectually bringing the Navy’s harbor shipyard below sea level (Drilling Ahead 117). As the ground shifted, underground drilling equipment sheered in half, forcing the abandonment of many wells.

Above: Land subsidence due to removal of oil almost flooded the Navy shipyard, 1952. (Source: USC Digital Library)

With southern California’s oil future at stake, engineers’ solution was waterflooding, or pumping water at high pressure into the reservoir behind the oil. This process increased the reservoir pressure and replaced the oil as it was pumped out, rather than letting the earth settle. Though daunting because it required cooperation from all the individually owned and operated oil rigs in the field waterflooding proved successful, even if at a cost of $30 million to the city and oil operators. Production plunged forward: by the early 1960s, the Wilmington field was producing over 100% more barrels per day than before, due to waterflooding. In 1964, the field (the largest in America after the East Texas Field) produced its billionth barrel of oil (Through Time 93).

At the same time as this push for oil, however, the war’s second consequence -the roots of the environmental movement in California – led to a changed attitude towards the oil fields. In addition to the growing production of oil, suburban areas sprouted up around Southern California. With families and oil intermingling, oil companies introduced the first fully-enclosed, sound-proofed pumping stations. In another feat of creativity, the THUMS oil islands, built in 1965 off the coast of Long Beach, housed their drills in high-rise mimicking structures, and decorated the islands with plants, waterfalls, and nighttime light displays that led the Los Angeles Times to compare them to Disneyland. These elaborate designs, though expensive, were thought to be proof that drilling could go hand in hand with relaxed California living. In 1950, the Los Angeles City Council set the foundations for a new urban oil search by permitting drilling in specifically zoned city areas so long as the wells were disguised, soundproof, and deposited their waste products elsewhere (Through Time 135). It’s no wonder that Angelenos favored disguising their oil pumps. But the culture of oil pumps being hidden amongst otherwise residential buildings might be a reason why oil, for all its power as a driving force of the Southwest economy, is not prevalent in the psyche of Southern California citizens.

Above: A float in Harbor Junior College’s 1953 Homecoming Parade commemorating the Signal Hill Oil Field. Through the 1960s oil production would become increasingly hidden. (Source: USC Digital Library)

No discussion of oil in Southern California is complete without a nod to the greatest frontier of all – the Pacific Ocean. Oil developers long cast interested looks to the neighboring the Pacific, harboring hunches that great pools of wealth lie untouched beneath the sea floor. Offshore drilling was birthed in California: in the 1890s H.L. Williams’ Summerland colony became home to 14 wells on the ends of piers that stretched up to 1,230 feet out to sea (Spudding In 207). Though these wells proved prosperous and several wildcat operations experimented with drilling the Pacific – including the first offshore drilling platform off California in 1932 – the 1938 State Lands Act put a damper on progress when it forbid anything but tidelands to be leased and drained of oil. Technology was not sufficient either: while the first offshore platform was in 38 feet of water, the steep drop-off of the continental shelf proved a daunting opponent to oil recovery. In 1955 the passage of the Cunningham-Shell Tidelands Act opened offshore lands to lease, and proposed stipulations for royalties and bidding on these lands (Drilling Ahead 104). Soon floating drilling platforms sprouted up along the coast, and the CUSS Group (consisting of oil giants Continental Oil, Union Oil, Shell Oil, and Superior Oil) experimented with full-scale drilling from floating vessels like their converted Navy freight barge the CUSS I. Floating platforms persisted until 1961 when Richfield Oil Corporation completed the first well to the ground in 55 feet of water nearly a mile offshore. Furthermore, the building of the 4 THUMS Islands greatly increased the production of the Wilmington Oil Field. In 1969, a blow-out of a Union Oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara spilled up to 100,000 barrels of crude into the sea. The spill sparked a nationwide shift to more environmentally friendly policies, and since then the California State Lands Commission has not granted any new offshore drilling leases, though areas leased before 1969 have continued to be explored for development (Drilling Ahead 280).

Above: Oil derricks line the coast and extend to sea in California’s earliest example of offshore drilling along the beaches of Santa Barbara, 1920. (Source: USC Digital Library)

The end of the century proved a pivotal time for California oil. Replaced by Middle Eastern producers as one of the top oil exporters in the world, California oil peaked at 424 million barrels per year in 1985, followed by a steady decline in production. For the last 20 years of the 20th century, a shift occurred as demand for crude oil decreased, but demand for natural gas as a clean fuel continued to increase. Advanced techniques such as steam injection allowed the last dredges of oil to be extracted from almost 100 year old fields, but higher production expenses and lower quality crude meant less demand for Golden State oil (Nehring 27). Simultaneously, Congress’ passage of the Natural Gas Policy Act lifted price controls on gas and opened the market for competitive trade once more (Marks 7). Today, California produced natural gas still plays a significant role in the energy economy.

Bruce Webster, an attorney for the petroleum industry, once said of Los Angeles, “they ruined a perfectly good oil field by building a city on top of it”(Business Insider). Though the relationship between fossil fuels and Southern California has been full of vicissitudes, neither would be the same without the interaction of oil and urban development that makes the region so unique. But for playing such a defining role in California’s history, Southern California’s oil and gas production remains a relative mystery to the average Angeleno. As the state faces significant decisions regarding its energy future, this must change, as the only way voters and policy makers can make accurate choices in the future is to understand the gravity of their decisions.

About the Author: Kali is a junior in the Environmental Studies program at USC.


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