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Running On Empty : Huntington Beach's Landmark Wells Are Vanishing Along With Once-flourishing Independents


Don Weir left Kansas during the Depression in the 1930s, went to Bakersfield and to Long Beach and served in the Army. When he got to Huntington Beach, "it was (oil) rig after rig after rig. Used to be all along the coast and on the bluffs above the beach. Now it's down to a handful of wells."

"The oil industry, it's been good to me. Through the years it's treated me good." But now he's getting ready to quit. "I'm not gonna fight it."

Independent oil men like Weir have a lot of concerns these days: environmental demands, local and federal taxes, the low price of oil, pressure from local developers to sell the wells, even encouragement from their children or grandchildren to ease their hold on their life's work.

Marshall Tinsley, who says he's been an oil man 90% of his life but no longer owns any wells, agreed with Weir. "Oil in California is on its way out," he said. "Land is more valuable than natural resources."

Since March 24, 1920, when oil was first discovered at the intersection of Clay Avenue and Golden West Street, the specter of rigs bobbing against the coastal sky has been a signature of Huntington Beach.

After World War II, when land was cheap and oil was expensive, people would buy a lot in Huntington Beach and drill for oil along with the major companies. As recently as five years ago there were still 400 "independents" operating back-yard wells.

Now there are 54.

"There aren't too many of us left," Weir said. The operators have "all died or got out."

Jack Teberg, president of the Independent Oil Producers Assn. in Huntington Beach, agrees. "We've lost more than half the independent oil producers. Government agencies are putting them out of business," he said.

Overall, the number of functioning oil wells in Huntington Beach has shown a drastic decrease. In the downtown area, where there used to be 200 to 300 wells run by independents, there are now 57.

And the trend toward abandonment of wells is not limited to the small producers. Where as many as five major oil companies used to operate in Huntington Beach, only Shell Offshore Drilling and Union 76 remain, said Oil Inspector Mark Bodenbender of the Huntington Beach Fire Department petrochemical division. A third major, Chevron, is in the process of abandoning wells.

Said Dennis Groat, a spokesman for the department: Oil drilling "used to be a little simpler. Find it, pump it, sell it."

Jeanne Nevins and Nancy Setters are called "single-site operator/owners," though they prefer the title "a dying breed" when discussing independent oil producers. The sisters are co-owners of Hardly Able Oil Co., which consists of one oil well--Donna No. 1, named after their mother.

Donna No. 1 rises tall in the back yard behind their childhood home on Seventh Street in Huntington Beach. Thanks to their mother's insistence when purchasing the property more than 40 years ago, they also own the property's mineral rights.

Nevins' and Setters' complaints are with the county assessor's new estimate of the property and the oil well, which caused their taxes to rise exorbitantly.

"They say they're taxing (oil) reserves," the sisters said of the assessor's explanation for effectively raising their taxes 500%. Last year their tax on oil revenue was $600. This year it was $1,800 for the first half alone.

The oil well "has been a marginal thing," Jeanne Nevins said, explaining that it has been producing eight barrels a day at $14.65 per barrel. The recent assessment on her property just isn't fair, she said. "They have to lower it, they just have to."

"The point is not to drive the small producers out of the business but they are pushing out the little guy," Nevins continued. 'It's not worth the hassle,' the old guys say. Gross production is way down."

But the sisters are grateful that their well is not within the massive redevelopment area of Huntington Beach's downtown, where the city has planned new hotels and upscale shops to attract tourists. Ultimately, city government hopes that tourist dollars will replace the oil money that once largely financed it.

Developers "are taking out the wells as fast as they can" in the downtown area, Nevins said. Developers are even willing to pay $30,000 to $40,000 per well to take them out of production, but the sisters say that wouldn't be enough to entice them to quit pumping.

"We're one block away from the redevelopment," Jeanne Nevins continued. "The land has gotten so expensive--they don't want to tie it up with the oil wells."

Oil production is no longer financially feasible, she continued. There were "more than 100 wells, mostly gone now. The oil industry isn't paying."

As long as 20 years ago oil producers complained about government regulation of oil drilling, saying at a 1971 City Council meeting that "the small operator is being taxed and badgered out of existence."

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