Strange Geographies: OIL! in L.A.

Ransom Riggs

Most people aren't surprised to hear that Los Angeles is one of the top oil-consuming areas in the country. But fewer people realize that it's also among the nation's top oil-producing areas, as well. Back in the old days -- when Edward Doheny struck oil near downtown LA in 1892 and Shell Oil discovered an enormous oil field beneath Signal Hill in the 20s -- parts of the city were literally forested with hundreds upon hundreds of oil derricks. In 1923, California produced a whopping 1/4th of the world's oil supply, and little Signal Hill was the state's most productive area. While many of those wells were torn down long ago, there are still productive oil fields beneath Los Angeles today -- and thousands of wells across LA County -- though the industry by which it is extracted is much more invisible than it once was. But if you go looking for it -- as I did -- you'll find it's still here, standing in strange juxtaposition to the palm-lined avenues and sunny beaches typically associated with LA. Read on to see what I found. (Click on the pictures for larger versions.)

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Here are the pits today. I love these sculptures of an ancient family of mastodons in the midst of tragedy.

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Nearby, asphalt from the pits seeps up through the sidewalk.

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Leave it to LA hoodlums to use whatever's at hand to write graffiti -- in this case, oily goo from the tar pits.

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Just down the road in Beverly Hills -- on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, no less, whose alumni include Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie -- towers an enormous oil derrick, visible from blocks away. It was painted by a local art organization in the mid-90s, with help, ironically, from a group of kids suffering from cancer. A decade later, Erin Brokovich herself sued the oil company that operated it on behalf of hundreds of former students claiming that exposure to fumes and chemicals from the well gave them cancer. (Their claims were ultimately dismissed in court.) Here's the well from a distance, down Olympic Boulevard.

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The well still produces 400-500 barrels of oil a day, earning the high school about $300,000 a year in royalties.

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South of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, there are hundreds of oil wells dotting the hills around Kenneth Hahn State Park. I lived in LA for nearly three years before I ever drove by them -- thanks to a cabbie who promised he knew a "secret back way" to LAX airport. Needless to say, there are plenty of Angelenos who don't even know they're here.

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The wells are all fenced off with barbed wire and signs announcing "danger!" and "no trespassing!" and "hazardous chemicals!" It's a view I wouldn't want from my front door:

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If you live in Signal Hill, still further south, a view of pumping oil wells is something you can never escape -- even when you're dead.

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The descendants of some people buried in Sunnyside Cemetery have received royalty checks for oil slant-drilled from beneath family grave plots.

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Not far from the cemetery, some industrious businessperson has turned an old derrick into a liquor store.

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There's also a Starbucks-adjacent oil well in Signal Hill, which was pumping merrily away when I visited. People walking by didn't give it a second glance.

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Across the street, in the parking lot of a sandwich joint:

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Off the coast of Long Beach -- I wish I had pictures of this -- are four man-made "islands" built in the 1960s to disguise hundreds of offshore oil wells. There's also a fake 14-story building along Pico Boulevard, behind the facade of which pumps a huge oil derrick. Here's a satellite photo of the building from above:

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If that's not some strange geography, I don't know what is.

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