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The Oil Beneath California

By Dave Summers | Tue, 07 June 2011 12:41 | 1

The development of oil in Texas produced, in its time, the four richest men in the world (H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Roy Cullen and Clint Murchison) and the single richest acre of oil production at Kilgore but is not where the greatest number of productive fields of oil per acre, or perhaps the most expensive acre in the country lies. (And the current richest American, Harold Hamm, incidentally is now from Oklahoma - oh, tempora). That expensive acreage is found in and around Los Angeles in California, and so it is California that I will write about today.

Oilfields of Los Angeles County
Oilfields of Los Angeles County (Source via Los Angeles Almanac is California Dept. of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources.

Oil fields under Los Angeles and environs
Oil fields under Los Angeles and environs ( CLUI )

The first productive oil well in California was drilled in the northern part of the state in the Mattole River Valley in 1865, after an initial well had been tried in 1861. The oil was taken west to San Francisco for refining and apparently sold for $1.40 a gallon. This started the production in the state, but it was not until the Southern California fields around what is now Los Angeles began to develop that Californian production became a significant player on the national stage.

Many of the early discoveries of oil relate back to the oil seeps that percolated up through the ground, and indicated that oil could be found, not too far beneath them. One of the more famous of these is known as the La Brea Tar Pits now surrounded by Los Angeles, and next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art . The tar has been trapping animals since before the days of the mammoth, and is an ongoing site for archeological work, mainly on the residual skeletons, blow fly puparia, and other relics that have been preserved by the tar.

The first successful commercial well was the one known as Pico No 4, which was originally drilled in the 1870’s and not shut-in until 1990, giving a start to the first oil town, Mentryville, in the state. It led to the development of the Los Angeles Basin, of which:

As attorney for the petroleum industry, Bruce Webster, once commenting to Los Angeles magazine about an oilfield, said, “They ruined a perfectly good oilfield by building a city on top of it.”

The first well was apparently drilled using the sharpened end of a eucalyptus tree, in 1892, by 1894 there were 80 wells in the area, and by 1897 some 500. Unfortunately Emma Summers, who owned half the production in 1900 was not a relative. She became known as “California’s petroleum Queen,” owning fourteen wells.

Her wells produced 50,000 barrels each month. At first she sold her oil through local brokers, but eventually took on that challenge in addition to managing her supplies, 40 horses, 10 wagons and a blacksmith shop. Summers sold her oil to downtown hotels, factories, Pacific Light & Power Co. and railroads.

Emma Summers
Emma Summers – California’s Oil Queen (Petroleum History Resources)

As the production of oil grew from 4 million barrels in 1900 to 77 million in 1910, so the city over the fields also grew, tripling in size over that decade. This has led to some conflict, and there is an interesting video showing how some of this has ultimately been resolved, with oil rigs camouflaged within the community.

As the original field began to deplete, exploration brought in other fields starting with Huntington Beach, in 1920. The first well there was not that encouraging, but the second came in at 2,000 bd, and the community rapidly grew. It is here that directional drilling was first used, to reach out to the tidal region off-shore . The town was initially largely stripped of the original buildings as the oilfield developed, and I am indebted to Debbie Cook for this map, which shows active (black) and capped wells for the city in more recent times, and gives some sense of well density.

Oil Wells in Huntington Beach
Wells in Huntington Beach CA (Debbie Cook)

As with many fields the original high production from a relatively small number of wells was not matched in later years, as the number of wells grew.

Huntington Beach oil production
Huntington Beach oil production (Debbie Cook)

Huntington Beach was followed by Santa Fe Springs, which went through a similar transformation. An initial well proved the field in 1919, and this was succeeded by the Bell #1 that came in at 2,500 bd. By 1929 it was the state’s largest oil producer, covering 1400 acres of land and it was producing some 275,000 bd.

It was followed by the Signal Hill discovery which began with the Alamitos #1 well, which came in on June 23, 1921, but caved in and had to be cleaned before establishing a production of 1,000 bd, with an ultimate recovery of some 700,000 bbl.

Oil promoters were selling shares of wells that had not yet been drilled. Signal Hill was to prove so prolific that, almost unbelievably, many of those buyers actually made money on their investments. The next-of-kin of persons buried in the Sunnyside Cemetery on Willow Street would eventually receive royalty checks for oil drawn out from beneath family grave plots.

By 1923 it was producing some 259,000 bd from some 300 wells, in comparison with Huntington Beach, which was then at 113,000 bd and Santa Fe Springs at 32,000 bd. In combination they were producing, at the time, a quarter of the world’s petroleum. And, in a foreboding of the future problems of over production, this was the first year in a decade that supply exceeded demand.

The Long Beach field, of which Signal Hill was a part, went on to produce over 900 million bbl of oil by 1980.

California’s overall oil production peaked in 1985, and is currently declining at around 3.3% a year, with 2009 production at around 630,000 bd, with the largest production at that time coming from the Midway-Sunset field at some 93,600 bd average production. In 2009 there were 2,570 wells completed to production in the state.

The last 50 years of California’s oil production  
The last 50 years of California’s oil production (CA Dept of Conservation).

There are, however, some other aspects to the fields in California, that I don’t have space to cover in this post, and so I shall return to the topic next week.

By. Dave Summers

David (Dave) Summers is a Curators' Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (he retired in 2010). He directed the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center at MO S&T off and on from 1976 to 2008, leading research teams that developed new mining and extraction technologies, mainly developing the use of high-pressure waterjets into a broad range of industrial uses. While one of the founders of The Oil Drum, back in 2005, he now also writes separately at Bit Tooth Energy.

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  • Anonymous on June 08 2011 said:
    This is a valuable article, for me at least. The next time I teach energy economics, it will be on my reading list.In fact, to my knowledge, I have only seen one 'oil well', and that that was in California.And yes, I never saw Harold Hamm's name on a 'most rich list'. Better check that author.

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