March 19, 2013
In the early 1890s, the city of Los Angeles was just beginning to recover from an economic depression. The city was looking for something to boost its economy after this downturn, and the answer seemed to lie within a resource that had been discovered and used on a smaller scale for generations: oil. Exploiting this oil, some argued, would boost both the economy as well as industries by providing inexpensive energy. Edward Doheny and other American businessmen quickly took advantage of this new opportunity. By the end of the 1890s, there were over five hundred oil wells in a relatively small area of downtown.
While the oil industry seemed to provide the economic boost the city had been looking for, it also had numerous drawbacks. The sudden boom in this industry led to the building of countless oil derricks, which had a significant impact on the city. These large and noisy structures took over whole neighborhoods, and aside from the impact of the structures themselves, the oil pumping leaked oil and natural gas; some Los Angeles residents felt that the oil industry was destroying the city. The building of oil derricks continued, and as this was still relatively new and primitive technology, it was unregulated. Oil would often leak and pour out onto streets, into gutters, and through residential areas. These issues caused a call for regulation, but as the oil industry was so new and profitable, officials were initially hesitant to take any action. Regulations gained support in the early 1900s, but official measures were largely unsuccessful, and the oil industry continued to thrive.
By the 1920s, the state of California began to look to the Pacific Coast as a rich new source of oil. This area offered significantly large oil fields, which were estimated to be more than 5 billion barrels. Accordingly, increased pressure grew to exploit these reserves, but this was a complex issue; recreation, tourism, and beachfront homeowners would be significantly impacted if California proceeded with coastal oil development. As a result, a battle ensued between the government who wanted to drill in coastal areas, and coastal cities who wanted to preserve their beaches. Numerous protests and lawsuits ensued until the California court ruled in favor of the government’s right to prospect all non-public coastal land. Coastal drilling proceeded, but the battle was far from over. Throughout the 1920s and beyond, there was continued controversy about whether or not southern California’s coastal oil should be exploited, particularly in Santa Barbara.
After a catastrophic oil spill from Platform A off of the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, leasing of offshore tracts was stopped due to the high visibility of the incident and the strong public opinion against offshore drilling. Because of the ban on leasing in state and federal waters, and the fact that California is not thought of as a highly productive oil region, many people do not realize the extent of California’s oil production today.
In spite of the aforementioned drilling bans, drilling continues on pre-existing sites that had already attained leases. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, reports that, as of 2009, there are twenty-three oil and gas platforms off of the California coast that have produced a cumulative 1.24 billion barrels of oil.
Even more surprising are the figures for onshore oil fields in California. According to a 2004 study done by the California Department of Conservation, there are 208 active oil fields producing nearly 270 million barrels in 2004 alone, or a cumulative 27 billion barrels. And this production is not likely to stop any time soon, with fifty-one of California’s oil fields estimated to have a total of 100 million barrels of cumulative discoverable oil, the largest of which, Midway-Sunset, still has just shy of 11 thousand producing wells.
When thinking about the likelihood of Los Angelinos allowing another situation like the early twentieth century to occur in order to capitalize on a large cache of oil, the answer seems clear. Current day Californians pride ourselves on being some of the most environmentally conscious and forward thinking in the nation. We look back on the days when oil fields intruded along our sandy shores and tell ourselves confidently that we would never let this happen.
However, there is a subtler and possibly more troubling trend that threatens our environment now. Hydraulic fracturing may not be happening on beaches up and down the coast, but it is happening in California. The Inglewood Oil Field has undergone a reported twenty-three hydraulic fracturing operations since 2003, according to its owner. Many sources, including the academy award-winning documentary Gasland, chronicle disconcerting connections between ‘fracking’ and human health. With all the uncertainty that surrounds hydraulic fracturing and its side effects on the water table and the concerning lack of regulation, it seems that Californians should know what they are getting into before future generations look back with disbelief as we do now on Southern California in the early 1900’s.
This post was written by Lindsey Estes, a senior pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science, and Kyle Ferree, a senior pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.
Sarah S. Elkind
“Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles”
Daniel Johnson & Paul Sabin
Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles
2004 Oil and Gas Statistics