The Times: Suburbs sprout oil derricks as city taps into slimy past: “THE rusting oil derricks that once pumped crude from beneath the streets of Los Angeles are being brought back to life almost 50 years after being abandoned.”: “In 1943 Shell Oil introduced the first “noiseless” derrick by wrapping it in insulation.”: Wednesday 30 November 2005
From Chris Ayres in Los Angeles
THE rusting oil derricks that once pumped crude from beneath the streets of Los Angeles are being brought back to life almost 50 years after being abandoned.
The derricks — black, hammer-like contraptions that squat over oil wells — were long ago rendered uneconomic by falling petroleum prices and the soaring value of property in Southern California.
But now, with the price of crude oil near a record high and the property market rapidly cooling, Tinseltown has rediscovered its less glamorous economic roots. As one oil industry lawyer once said: “They ruined a perfectly good oilfield by building a city on top of it.”
In the Signal Hill area, an oil drill has started boring into the earth next to a Starbucks. In Long Beach, drills have been disguised as tropical islands, with waterfalls and banana trees. And in Venice, the rigs pose as lighthouses and office blocks.
Analysts say that many Los Angeles wells were plugged after giving up only 25 per cent of their oil — even though modern technology allows up to 50 per cent of a reserve to be drained. Now those wells are being hastily reactivated.
Rich Baker, an executive at the state-owned Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, told the Los Angeles Times that “it might get to the point where people start tearing down houses to drill for oil. It’s happened before . . . and there’s still a lot of oil left.”
Indeed, analysts predict that the number of abandoned oil wells throughout California, which stands at about 3,000, will soon drop to zero. There are thought to be about 4,000 active urban oil wells in the greater Los Angeles area.
Homeowners are unlikely to swing wrecking balls any time soon, however. Modern slant-angled drills allow derricks to be set up as far as six miles from the oil pockets, allowing oil to start flowing again with the minimum of disruption.
But such drills are expensive so it is more common for old derricks to be reactivated. Some have not pumped oil since the 1950s, when cars came with fins, chrome and whitewall tyres.
It is often overlooked that Los Angeles was once better known for its oil wells than its movies. George Bush Sr, the father of the US President, once lived in the suburb of Compton — now notorious for its gangland killings — selling oil-drilling equipment for Dresser Industries. One of the main Los Angeles thoroughfares, Doheny Drive, is named after the controversial oil tycoon Edward Doheny, who in 1893 discovered the city’s first oil field a mere 200ft (60m) below Echo Park.
Doheny’s biographer, Margaret Davis, later described how the discovery changed the city: “Black grimy drills ground noisily day and night, yielding for their owners thick muddy earth and black smoke . . . and ultimately thousands of gallons of oil.” These days the drills are a little more sophisticated. In 1943 Shell Oil introduced the first “noiseless” derrick by wrapping it in insulation.
As oil prices fell through the 1980s, thousands of wells were gradually abandoned and houses were built on top of reservoirs. As a result, not everyone has much choice over their participation in California’s new oil boom.
In Huntington Beach, pressure from methane gas in an abandoned well caused 300 gallons of oil to spew 40ft into the air, covering landscaped gardens, pavements, cars, pets, and nearly 400 surrounding homes.
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