I find it very fortunate that, as an East Coast transplant living in Los Angeles for the last ten years, there are still things that surprise me about this city and its environs. Last Friday, December 18, for instance, I was taken on a tour that pretty much blew my mind—a tour of something integral to everything from house paint to bicycle tires, ice cube trays, and the incessant driving that goes on in this town, and yet so often deceptively hidden under urban guise in relation to its massive scale and influence. I went on A Bus Tour of the Urban Oilscape of Los Angeles, hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).
We found out at the end of the day that this bus actually runs on desalinated sea water! Just kidding! Let’s just say, the irony of driving around all day in this bus that probably gets about six miles to the gallon was not lost on us.
2009 is the sesquicentennial of the discovery of oil, and the CLUI is taking a long, fascinating look at this fact with a triad of explorations into this slippery industry across the country. They started with a study of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, were invited down to Houston for a bit of Texas Oil, and landed back in Los Angeles with the current exhibition at their headquarters in Culver City: Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin, as well as an installation of “landscans” going on right now as part of LACMA’s presentation of New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (closing on January 3). Here at LACMA they present hypnotic aerial views in high-definition video of vast areas of oil production and processing—a Houston petrochemical processing plant as well as our very own oil-producing neighbor, the Kern County oil basin.
Matt Coolidge introduces the day, mentioning that CLUI likes to explore how we humans interact with the top layer of the ground.
We piled into a big shiny bus at 8:50 am after being served coffee and donuts at the CLUI HQ and headed off for a day of “edutainment,” as Matthew Coolidge called it. The CLUI’s methods (or madness, as some may say) of research, extrapolation, educating, and art-making are as non-didactic as you can get. “Isn’t this interesting,” they seem to be saying, “what do you think of this?” There is a self-proclaimed wide-eyedness about what they do that invites you to come to your own conclusions about whatever it is they unearth. Among their vast land-based interests, they have studied and exhibited on dumps, parking lots, and show caves; they host artists in residence at the CLUI’s Wendover Complex in Wendover, Utah, and they have a massive online land use database.
Our tour took us from pump jacks in downtown Los Angeles to man-made oil-rich islands off of Long Beach, with lots of stops along the way. Oil, as defining a historical resource as the film industry in Los Angeles, runs far and wide underneath us—thousands of feet deep. Los Angeles is the most urban and developed oil field in the world. Can you imagine?
Sally of the Venoco Beverly Hills West field on Olympic next to the Beverly Hills High School, where there are fifteen active wells. She was very informative, explaining how water and oil are pulled out of the ground, with water being re-injected into the earth to prevent collapse as well as disposal. She also told us about how oil wells are drilled in a telescoping fashion. Here she showed us a subterranean map of the Beverly Hills Oil Field right underfoot.
This was the cutest little pump jack ever, behind a church close to downtown Los Angeles. It produces about 3–4 barrels of oil a day.
Lunch was in Signal Hill at Curley’s Café, complete with pump jacks. I had a turkey French dip sandwich.
Whereas much of the urban oil production in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills is hidden behind walls and disguised as office buildings, there are still plenty of pump jacks and oil derricks right out in the open in Signal Hill. At Curley’s we picked up real estate developer and oil entrepreneur Brady Barto of Signal Hill Petroleum, Inc., and he guided us to some of the hot spots of his oil and real estate industry down there.
Petroleum geologist Don Clark met us on the hilltop at Signal Hill and explained continental shift, fault zones, and, you guessed it, underground oil fields. He informed us that Signal Hill has possibly the most oil per acre in the world—there are billions of barrels of oil underfoot. And there could be even tens of billions—they won’t know unless permission is given to explore the possibilities. A mystery that, for reasons one can imagine, many people would prefer to leave at that.
A bit further south in Long Beach, Bill of THUMS Long Beach Company (contractors for Occidental Petroleum Corporation) met up with us on the pier at Marina Green Park and explained the history and design of the four man-made islands off the coast that produce about 11.7 million barrels of oil annually from the Wilmington Oil Field, fourth largest in the continental United States. That structure with palm trees in the background is one of the closer-to-shore islands, called Grissom Island.
Waterfalls, lighting, and sculptural soundproofing camouflage the two closest-to-shore THUMS islands. Occasionally, Bill gets calls from high-rise condo dwellers onshore having cocktail parties or special dinners wondering if THUMS can turn the lights and waterfall on an hour or so early for their visual entertainment. THUMS always accommodates their requests.
Sarah Bay Williams, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department