The history of Los Angeles is intertwined with the use and production of gasoline and oil. Everyone thinks of Los Angeles as the ultimate car city, but the city’s relationship with petroleum products is far more significant than just consumption. Los Angeles is located directly above huge oil reserves and is home to a lucrative and active oil industry, an industry that prefers to remain largely hidden and unknown.
In 1925, California supplied half of the world’s oil and much of it came from pumps in the Southland. To date, around 9 billion barrels of oil have been produced in the Los Angeles area. There are still over 30,000 active wells here pumping around 230 million barrels of oil a year, making Los Angeles County the second most productive oil county in California (Kern County is the number one oil county; and the quality of the oil here in Los Angeles is somewhat low by today’s standards). There are 55 known oil fields in the Los Angeles area and 11 of them are located in a very urban context. This setting makes the oil extraction process in Los Angeles unique.
The organization CLUI recently held a Los Angeles oil well tour that has served as my guide for learning about this urban oil industry (this article is also a good reference). I mapped the CLUI tour locations onto this LA oil map so I could easily retrace CLUI’s steps with a camera. For this project, I concentrated my efforts on the area between Beverly Hills and Downtown (please note that this survey is by no means inclusive).
Because of the negative public perception of the physical aspects of oil extraction that has existed since the late 60’s, these urban pumping stations are camouflaged and hidden. The derricks are placed within golf courses, behind hedges and behind concrete walls. One pumping station (the Cardiff site) is designed to look kind of like a synagogue. The oil infrastructure here comprises a secret landscape that is right in front of us. The photos below are a record of this hidden industry. I have also mixed in some pictures of sites related to the history and presence of petroleum products in Los Angeles.
Venoco Flower Tower (Beverly Hills Oil Field) — W. Olympic Blvd & Heath Ave 90212
This derrick, disguised by a colorful, flowery wrap, is a well-known landmark near Century City. The claim to fame of this site is that it is located on the grounds of the Beverly Hills High School. 30 or 40 wells here pump a total of 150,000 barrels of oil a year. (These urban pumping sites generally have wells that spider-out diagonally, allowing one pumping station to access a spread of underground locations). Venoco has owned this site since 1995.
- Hillcrest Golf Course Wells (Cheviot Hills Oil Field) — W. Pico Blvd & Motor Ave 90064
- The golf course provides convenient cover for the two set of wells that are hidden within the greens. 57,000 barrels a year come out of the 18 wells here.
Cardiff Tower (Beverly Hills Oil Field) — W. Pico Blvd and S. Doheny Dr. 90035
The Cardiff oil pumping station looks very much like a synagogue tower. This appearance helps the site maintain a low profile in this predominantly Jewish neighborhood (on this portion of W. Pico Blvd you can buy everything kosher, from pizza to chinese food). 40 active wells pump around 260,000 barrels of oil a year here; Breitburn Energy owns this property. (Breitburn is a company that buys up mature wells and uses computer modelling technology to draw more oil from them. They own a number of the sites listed below and are based in downtown Los Angeles, in the old Arco building.)
Beverly Center Pumping Station (Salt Lake Oil Field and San Vicente Oil Field) — W. Beverly Blvd and N. San Vicente 90048
Across the street from Ceder Sinai hospital and tucked neatly against the back of the Beverly Center is a pumping station operated by the PXP (Plains Exploration & Production) company. The 54 wells here supply 500,000 barrels each year. You can see the derrick from the sidewalk behind shipping center and the site is visible from the parking garage across San Vicente. From the actual Beverly Center property, views onto the wells and tanks have been minimized as much as possible. You can get a good look (as seen in the photo above) from one side of the car exit of the parking garage,
Packard Well Site (Beverly Hills Oil Field) — W. Pico and S. Genesee Ave 90019
This station has been disguised to look like a rather plain (and windowless) office building. Back in the 60’s, visitors could enter the building to view an educational display and even observe the operations of the pumps. Now the grounds are secured from the public. In 2008, the Packard wells produced 491,000 barrels of oil and 763 million cubic feet of gas. PXP operates 51 wells on site.
Ross Dress for Less (Salt Lake Oil Field) — 6298 West 3rd Street 90036
Actually there is no oil pumping station in Ross Dress for Less. However there once was one across the street near the Hollywood Farmers Market, at a site that is now a parking garage for the Grove. The Ross pictured is notable because in 1985, following drilling for the Red Line subway in the area, large quantities of methane rose to the surface and exploded inside this store. 23 people were hospitalized. Today, evidence has accumulated to the effect that pressurization of the wells at the nearby oil pumping station may very likely be the true cause of this unfortunate event.
La Brea Tar Pits (Salt Lake Oil Field) — Wilshire Blvd and S. Curson Ave 90036
This is another site with no pumps or derricks, but there sure is a lot of tar at hand! The La Brea Tar Pits are a well known attraction, complete with mock pre-historic animals and a nice little museum. The tar lake bubbles as methane gas constantly seeps to the surface. One of the staff here told me that if the main lake catches fire it is a big problem as methane is so hard to extinguish. Take heed smokers, be careful with your cigarette butts! (Photo courtesy of coconut wireless.)
23 St and St. James Wells (Las Cienagas Oil Field) — W. 23rd St and Bonsallo Ave 90007
This land once belonged to the oil tycoon Edward Doheny (he was the inspiration for the novel and movie There Will Be Blood). After Doheney’s death, his widow donated the property to the Catholic Church and the church created a small college, Mount St. Mary College, on the site. The centerpiece of the campus is the magnificent Doheny Mansion, which is used for faculty housing. The oil wells located on the campus are now owned by the Allenco company; 8 active wells here produce 16,000 barrels a year.
Petroleum Building — 714 W. Olympic Blvd 90015
Built in 1924, designed by Raymond M. Kennedy of Meyer & Holler, this building was constructed as headquarters for Doheny’s oil empire. Right down the street and also from 1924 is the Standard Oil Building (605. W. Olympic 90015). It is hard to remember that in 1925 the United States supplied 70% of the world’s oil. Even in the 1950’s the U.S. still accounted for more than 50% of global supply (compared to 12% more recently). Oil production, and hence the apparatus and machinery of this industry, was allied with American success and competitiveness on the world stage. Changes of attitude towards the physical machinery of the oil industry started in the late 60’s; parallel with a dependency on foreign oil beginning in 1970. The present public opinion of petroleum production infrastructure–with the effects of the BP Gulf oil spill becoming ever more evident–is perhaps at a new low.
14th Place and Hill Street Oil Wells (Los Angeles Downtown Oil Field) — S. Hill St and W. 14th Place 90015
Run by the St. James Oil company, this is the last active well on the smaller L. A. Downtown Oil Field. Not too much oil is pumped here anymore; efforts to increase the flow by pumping pressurized steam into the earth have created seepage problems in the surrounding neighborhood. What is so striking about this place is the location, mere blocks from the downtown skyscrapers.
Echo Park Pool, Site of First Oil Well in Los Angeles (Los Angeles City Oil Field) — Glendale Blvd and Colton St. 90026
Here we go back to where it all started in 1892, when Edward Doheny dug the first oil well in Los Angeles. (There is a good account of this momentous occasion in Doheny’s biography, The Dark Side of Fortune). The historic well was located right here at what is now a parking lot for this municipal pool.
Old Pumps (Los Angeles City Oil Field) — Belmont Ave and Rockwood St 90026
Philip McDonald owned this site and lived here, struggling with the earth and the city and presiding over the McDonald Oil Company, a small oil venture with 10 wells. He is recently deceased; his equipment remains on-site for the time-being.
Roybal Learning Center (Los Angeles City Oil Field) — W. 1st and N. Beaudry Ave 90012
Costing 400 million dollars and built over a 15 year time-span, this place (also known as the Belmont Learning Complex) was once the most expensive high school in the United States. One difficulty with the site is the hydrogen sulfide and methane gas emissions from the underground oil field just below. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that this area is full of old wells that date from the early years of oil extraction in Los Angeles, when there was much less oversite of the oil industry. Now gas seeps up through these man-made channels, as well as through natural fissures. This document discusses the risks associated with these emissions; the solution that they worked out involves safeguards such as venting of these gases, as seen in the photo above.
Remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as oil related sites in Los Angeles go! Oil production is a largely invisible but none-the-less ever-present part of life here. Please reference my LA oil map for the location of these additional landmarks:
•The Hammer Museum is located on the ground floor of the headquarters of Occidental Oil, founded in 1920 by Armand hammer and now America’s 4th largest oil and gas company.
•In the Baldwin Hills/Stocker area (located above the Inglewood Oil Field), any pretense of hiding the oil infrastructure is abandoned. This extensive oil pumping site holds 430 active wells (run by the PXP company).
•Similarly, in Signal Hill oil production is an obvious part of the landscape, with pumps everywhere. Curley’s Cafe is just one famous location with a prominent well outside. Even the Starbucks here has a pump in front!
•The THUMS project in Long Beach involved building 4 artificial islands to house oil wells just offshore. These islands are visible from the Long Beach coast.
•Refineries! North of Long Beach, Interstate 405 passes through a grab-bag of refineries. Nearby Highway 103 travels through such a barren and isolated industrial landscape that it is often used as a backdrop for filming movies.