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snapshots from the center of the universe : Metropolis

A Reminder That L.A. Is Still in the Slick of Things

February 04, 2001|James Ricci

In the category of things los angeles seems to have stopped noticing about itself is that the city and its environs are oil country.

The designation doesn't exactly jibe with the city's self-image. It conjures images of manure-kicking Texans, seawater-logged Louisianans and half-frozen Alaskans, not Beverly Hills spa-goers or Boyle Heights garment workers. Yet ever since 1892, when E.L. Doheny worked up the first commercial oil well near Westlake Park, oil has been a defining industry here, predating Hollywood as a dreamscape of fast and dirty riches. (The tar of the La Brea Tar Pits, taking this definition thing back even further in time, is oil.)

The Los Angeles Basin is still blotchy with producing oil fields, more than 40 of them. They underlie Beverly Hills, downtown L.A., Watts, Torrance, Montebello. They lurk beneath the surfaces of El Segundo, Santa Fe Springs, Long Beach, East L.A. and West L.A. They're one of the few characteristics the far-flung reaches of the metropolitan area can be said to have in common.

L.A. County's more than 2,880 wells extract about 80,000 42-gallon barrels of oil every day. In California, the country's fourth-leading oil-producing state, the L.A. region is the second most productive after the prolific Bakersfield area. Only last year did Kern County's Midway-Sunset field overtake L.A. County's Wilmington field as California's cumulative leader.

As a rule, oil-pumping in the metropolitan area is done as discreetly as embalming. The hardware is kept out of sight. The extract flows into underground pipelines for processing elsewhere.

How many people who frequent the Beverly Center are aware that just behind the high-toned shopping mall is a sizable drilling site where 39 active wells equipped with below-ground pumps suck crude from the San Vicente oil field? How many commuters rushing in and out of downtown L.A.'s central rail terminal realize they're traversing an oil patch where two active wells last year produced 1,600 barrels of oil from the Union Station field?

The great exception to all this furtiveness is the Inglewood oil field, seven miles southwest of downtown. Motorists happening for the first time onto Stocker Road between La Brea Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard might think they've passed through a time warp and hyper-spaced into rural Oklahoma, circa 1920.

Across 900 unincorporated acres of Baldwin Hills, a couple hundred rocking-arm pumps alternately raise and dip their heads like giant birds pecking contemplatively at the rumpled ground. No other major American metropolis harbors such a sight in its urbanized core.

The Inglewood field has been producing oil since 1924, peaking at 50,000 barrels a day one year later. To date, the field has yielded more than 350 million barrels, about a third of what it is thought to contain. The company that operates the field, Stocker Resources Inc., believes 200 million additional barrels are recoverable, given current economic and technological constraints.

Pumping at Inglewood is a leisurely affair. At any given time, many of the rocking-arm rigs are asleep, waiting to be wakened by timers when the fluid beneath them has recovered to pumpable levels. Ninety-seven percent of what the pumps draw is water, which is separated from the oil and returned underground. Pressure in the oil field is low; massive amounts of water must be injected to force the oil in the sandy substrata toward the business end of the wells.

Currently the field gives up about 6,900 barrels of syrup-thick crude oil (and about 11 million cubic feet of natural gas) every day, an average of 23 barrels per well. After refining, the daily take yields enough gasoline to fill the tanks, by my reckoning, of about 5,500 SUVs.

Stocker Resources also operates the San Vicente drill site behind the Beverly Center and the Packard site south of Century City. The outflow from both of these is pipelined underground to the Inglewood field for processing. The two satellite sites produce an additional 4,500 barrels a day.

On a recent afternoon, a 99-foot-high diesel-powered drilling rig and a crew of eight from Orcutt-based Kenai Drilling Limited were deployed at the edge of a hill in the Inglewood field. The clear air of a partly cloudy day afforded a panoramic view of the metropolis that has solidly encircled the field, as rig and crew slowly bored toward a depth of 3,500 feet to create a new well. The rising oil prices of the past year have quickened the stirring of new life at the field; Stocker Resources drilled 10 new wells there in 2000, and is drilling 22 more this year.

Los Angeles may think of itself primarily as a producer of hip television shows and flash clothing, but every day the nodding rocking-arm rigs at the Inglewood field ponderously affirm that not everything here is evanescent.

The oil business, love it, hate it or try not to think about it, is part of the living connective tissue that links determinedly forgetful L.A. to its past. With transportation researchers predicting local automobile traffic to get nothing but worse in the years ahead, the industry's relevance to the region's future is a foregone conclusion.

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