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Drilling in Disguise : On Long Beach's Artificial Islands, Oil Comes Out and--Just as Important--Water Goes In

November 15, 1996|JANET WISCOMBE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By day they are orderly little palm-fringed islands commonly mistaken for resorts. By night they look like giant orange, lemon and blue Popsicles looming out of the sea.

From the beach, residents and tourists in Long Beach can see brown pelicans and sea gulls soaring above 40-foot waterfalls on the mysterious offshore archipelago.

What they cannot see beneath the macadamia and banana trees, the flowering roses and hibiscus, the sculptured topiary and carved tikis, is the nation's third-largest oil field, a leviathan 13,500-acre field of camouflaged crude.

Despite consistent oil production over the years that has pumped about $440 million into Long Beach city coffers and about $4.5 billion into the state's, the people who go to work each day on the artificial islands actually pump far more water than oil. In fact, water is not only used to increase oil production; water keeps the city from sinking, said Donald Clarke, the city's geologist who works for its Department of Oil Properties.

"My biggest headache and my biggest nightmare is what will happen when we stop producing oil," said Clarke, noting that no one is quite sure what effect cessation of pumping will have. He predicts that the vast Wilmington oil field will produce oil until about 2020. "We have to control the subsidence all the time. If the ground sinks just six inches in certain parts of the harbor, ships can't go under the Gerald Desmond Bridge."

On a cool fall day, Clarke has come out to Island White, one of four man-made islands in Long Beach Harbor, to talk about the work that goes on within the palm-fringed, movie-set-like facade.

About 100 workers in hard hats and safety goggles commute to the islands by water taxi to drill and pump 41,200 barrels of oil a day in the industrial maze of pipes and pumps, trucks and tanks. What's less well known is that 90% of the liquid that's produced on the islands--495,500 barrels a day--is water. Only 10% is oil.

"We are always trying to refine the formula," Clarke said. "We put water back into the earth every day to balance the underground holes. Most of our facilities on the islands handle water. We suck fluid out. We put fluid back in."

Subsidence control--injecting water under pressure into oil zones to replace the oil being drawn out--is critical to maintaining the delicate balance between man and nature. It is a process that requires constant vigilance, Clarke said.

Ever since the first oil gusher erupted and Long Beach got into the oil business in 1936, the issue of subsidence has been the ominous card in the oil fortune deck. The withdrawal of fluids from the oil zones and the subsequent loss of underground pressure caused the earth to sink.

While subsidence studies were being conducted in the early 1950s, the city was sinking at the alarming rate of more than 2 feet per year. By 1958, Long Beach became known as "The Sinking City." A 20-square-mile area over the Wilmington oil field sunk a staggering 29 feet at the center, twisting railroad tracks and wrecking wharves.

By the early 1960s, water injection measures were working and the area had been stabilized. But then as now, the most constant and pressing challenge has been maintaining that stability, said Xenophon Colazas, director of the city's oil department.

For those who work on the islands, dealing with geological complexities and waging battles against subsidence has resulted in an unusually high degree of teamwork and camaraderie, workers say. Steve Liles, area superintendent for THUMS--a subsidiary of Arco that operates the facilities on Island White--speaks with pride about overseeing a civic curiosity that is world famous.

"People come from all over the world to visit the islands," he said. "We've had people from the Soviet republic. Even the vice president of China has been here. People can't believe we operate all these wells in such a small space. There are 225 wells on Island White alone.

"This is the nicest place in the entire world for an oil field," he added. "It's clean. It looks good. There's no noise. There's no pollution. You can't even smell oil."

Liles disappears for a moment. With the flip of a switch, he turns on a waterfall that dramatically cascades over huge granite rocks and into the ocean.

He concedes that it may be somewhat more difficult to continue to safely and profitably produce oil--and water--on one of the world's greatest and best-disguised oil fields.

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