A story in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye this morning about a Southern California city, and the realization by its mayor that they could be sitting on a gold mine. Black gold, that is. In tough economic times, and with fuel costs as volatile as they have been, the story says the City of Whittier is looking toward its abandoned oil fields:
A Texas A&M University-trained geologist has come here to dig test oil wells, an environmental review has been launched and city officials are tallying up how much money could be in it for Whittier.
"The numbers I've been shown, wow, they're unbelievable," says Greg Nordbak, Whittier's mayor pro tem. "If this could come in, this could certainly endow Whittier's future for the next 100 years," he says.
The story, called The Derrick Next Door, shows us this Whittier Museum photo of the city's landscape back around 1890, and quotes an expert in tapping oil reserves from teeny tiny spaces :
Mike McCaskey is a geologist with closely held Matrix Oil Corp., up the California coast, in Santa Barbara. His company, now working with Whittier, specializes in setting up "town lots" -- the art of pulling petroleum straight out of the nooks wedged between people's houses.
A thousand feet below Whittier, against a fault and under many sandstone layers, Mr. McCaskey believes, there could be "10 million to 20 million barrels of recoverable oil."
Since the California oil booms of the 19th century, the Los Angeles basin has pumped out the better part of a trillion barrels of oil, he says.
One person who commented on the Wall Street Journal story said, "According to the geologist from Matrix there is a potential for 10 to 20 millions barrels --The US consumes 25 million barrels per day --There is enough oil for one day in Whittier..................bravo"
Los Angeles during the 1920s was a laboratory of the future. It was the first city created to serve the needs of the automobile — it's where the car culture was born. And for a brief period, it was the center of world oil production. A handful of major discoveries — at Huntington Beach, at Signal Hill near Long Beach, at Telegraph Hill and Santa Fe Springs in Orange County— made Southern California the world's biggest oil producer. The oil industry became the leading sector of the California economy, and the state was soon responsible for about a quarter of the world's supply.
I found this story from March of 1900 in the New York Times archives, that reported on this quiet new industry in the "Golden" state, when unsuccessful gold prospectors started striking oil instead. Here's the headline:
Back in March of 1900, the story says, oil was selling for $1a barrel, and that in 1899,"...Southern California realized nearly $4,000,000 from her oil industries, but probably no person out of a thousand in the East knows that California is an oil-producing State. Oranges, lemons, sugar beets, and gold have been the commodities up to this time, by which investors have been attracted, but for many years oil has been quietly developed."
You saw it if you were here, though. Check out the 1930's era picture here of Signal Hill.
It's odd to imagine the Greater Los Angeles area as a self-sustaining car culture, with the automotive industry in its infancy here, while the oil biz was booming.
The New York Times story "Oil! And the History of Southern California" says:
Real estate ads in Southern California began to promote the notion that if you bought some land, you could not only build a house on it, but also drill for oil there as well. Much of the oil was discovered right in the middle of suburban subdivisions, like in Long Beach and Huntington Beach. The photographs are incredible. You have these new suburban tract homes, with hundreds of oil derricks rising from their midst.
So it was like a gold rush, and people thought they could make money off the land and make money off the derrick in their back yard.
But while Southern California was the birthplace of the American oil drilling experience, it was also the birthplace of the modern American environmental movement, which also has its roots in oil. Check out this YouTube video from "Cage Free Productions" called "Birth of a Movement."
It's a nearly 9 minute piece on the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, when 3 million gallons of crude spewed out of cracks under an oil platform on the floor of the channel and started washing up on shore.
Over the next eleven days, crews struggled to plug the holes. Thirty miles of shoreline were soiled with black sludge, and the waves were so heavy with oil, they broke without making a sound.
It was the worst oil spill in US history until the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster 30 years later.
One story I saw today says Los Angeles County oil wells produce about 27-million barrels of oil a year... much of it right under our noses. I've been sent out to cover stories on oil bubbling up from sidewalks in Century City, when a pipeline you'd never know was there had sprung a leak, or the mural project to disguise an oil well that's still plugging away in the middle of a busy metropolis, like this one in the shadow of Century City's towers.
I think a lot of attention came back to Southern California's oil history when crude was going for $150 a barrel. But even at a third of that, cities like Whittier think it may be worth while to tap into. And for all those 27million gallons being pumped here, one oil analyst says that's 27 million fewer gallons coming in on a ship or pipeline off our coast from somewhere else.
Editor's Note: I'm going to allow the crude language in this piece because it's so slick.