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Well, Well: Oil Rigs Return

New technology and rising demand for petroleum are fueling a comeback of drills in the Southland, where they once numbered 33,000.

November 28, 2005|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

They once ruled Southern California, staking claim to broad stretches of coastline and hillsides. Then, in the 1980s, they began vanishing -- driven from their native habitat by tract houses, mini-malls and pesky environmentalists.

By the time gasoline prices barreled into the stratosphere this year, local oil wells had become the industrial equivalent of an endangered species.

From a peak population of 33,000, they dwindled to about 4,000. Surviving drills were forced to forage in strange locations, such as restaurant parking lots, residential lawns and inside faux office buildings.

Today, these holdout rigs stand as a symbol of both a bygone era and -- oddly -- the future.

Because of technological breakthroughs and rising demand for petroleum, the previously doomed hulks have gained a new lease on life. And abandoned wells are being pressed back into service.

If crude prices spiral high enough, "it might get to the point where people start tearing down houses to drill for oil," said Rich Baker, who oversees the Southern California branch of the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. "It's happened before

In recent months, "we've had companies putting 45-year-old wells back into production," said Rock Zierman, spokesman for the California Independent Petroleum Assn.

Iraj Ershagi, director of USC's petroleum engineering program, predicts that the number of abandoned wells -- about 3,000 statewide -- might soon drop to zero.

But he said people probably wouldn't notice the resurgence of drilling. Since 1943, when Shell Oil pioneered the first "noiseless" derrick -- swaddled in fluffy insulation -- oil pumps have grown increasingly adaptable to urban settings.

In Signal Hill, grasshopper-style rigs drill for oil behind backyards, next to a Starbucks, in public parks and on the edge of a cemetery.

At Huntington Beach City Hall, three drills lurk in the parking lot. Like giant mechanical mosquitoes, they spend their days slurping up syrupy crude from beneath the earth's skin.

Some wells try to blend in with their surroundings. In the waters off Long Beach, rigs have disguised themselves as tropical islands with 45-foot waterfalls, banana trees, hibiscus and carved tikis. At night, the illuminated oases look like "giant orange, lemon and blue Popsicles looming out of the sea," one writer said.

Elsewhere, drills have masqueraded as a Venice Beach lighthouse and a 13-story office building. The derrick at Beverly Hills High School hides inside a decorated tower.

But oil wells haven't always been so unobtrusive.

Flash back to the 1890s, when prospector Edward Doheny transformed a 60-foot tree trunk into a primitive drill and struck a vein of black gold near Echo Park. Aspiring Jed Clampetts promptly ripped up homes in downtown Los Angeles and planted a forest of oil derricks.

The same thing happened in Huntington Beach in the 1920s and '50s, according to news accounts. Colonies of pumps sprang up along local beaches. Just up the coast, Signal Hill became carpeted with so many derricks that it was nicknamed Porcupine Hill.

Then, in 1969, a massive oil spill tarred the shoreline in Santa Barbara -- and public opinion began to sour.

The backlash gained ground in the 1980s and '90s. As oil prices nosedived and land values and environmental restrictions soared, oil companies decided it was more lucrative to replace rigs with houses.

A surprising hunk of Los Angeles County and Orange County real estate now rests atop oil reservoirs, according to state maps of abandoned wells.

As oil attorney Bruce Webster once complained to Los Angeles magazine: "They ruined a perfectly good oil field by building a city on top of it."

It was a shortsighted move, said USC's Ershagi: "In L.A., we've shut down many wells after only 20% to 25% of the oil is extracted. That's ridiculous."

In contrast, Norway drains at least 50% of a reserve -- the approximate upper limit using current technology -- before allowing a well to be plugged, he noted.

To ease the current energy crunch, Ershagi favors replenishing Southern California's stock of urban oil rigs. But this time, there's no need to knock down homes, he said. Modern slant-angle drills can tap into oil pockets six miles from the actual pump.

But slant drilling is costly, so some petroleum barons prefer performing CPR on abandoned wells.


Steering a golf cart around Coyote Hills Golf Course in Fullerton, Tim Duncan represents urban oil drilling's new face.

Duncan manages the hilly course, which serves as an Audubon International-certified wildlife sanctuary for gnatcatchers, cactus wrens and other critters. It's also home to two dozen oil rigs and a sprawling petroleum processing plant.

The rigs are connected by underground pipes to storage tanks in the middle of the course. The liquid they siphon from the soil is 90% water, a common trait for Southern California wells. From that brew, an inky crude, redolent of gasoline, is extracted and shipped to refineries.

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