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Vaagn Grigoian



Oil Fields

Sawtelle Oil Field

     Sawtelle is the westernmost of a chain of eleven oil fields that extend for ten miles between here and downtown Los Angeles. These are the most urbanized producing oil fields in the nation, if not the world, collectively producing around two million barrels of crude every year, in and amidst the heart of Los Angeles. The Sawtelle Field’s share of that is around 185,000 barrels, all of which is extracted through wells inside this fenced compound, just 500 feet long and 200 feet wide. Currently 12 to 14 wells are active on site, with a few idle. Like nearly all wells in urban Los Angeles, they are drilled laterally, meaning they curve outward from the surface as they are drilled, extending like tentacles of an octopus from this centralized well head location. These legs are typically one to two miles long. This is what allows for the sizable fields underlying this part of the city to be accessed from just a few dozen surface sites, such as this.

     The Sawtelle operation looks like other drill sites in the area, hidden in plain site, behind shrubbery, cement block walls, and a chain link fence. It is operated by Breitburn Energy, a local company which operates a number of other fields in the area, and which has been active in these urban fields since 1988.

     Breitburn was founded by two Stanford petroleum engineering students who bought up mature existing leases like this and redeveloped them using computer oil field modeling that had become suddenly achievable with the proliferation of personal computers. Though Breitburn has expanded now beyond California, they are still headquartered downtown, in the old Arco Tower.

Wilmington Oil Field

     Wilmington Oil Field, the Southland’s largest field in area and output. It is fifteen miles long and five miles wide, extending from Torrance to off Seal Beach, underlying most of the port of LA and Long Beach. The field has produced close to 3 billion barrels of oil since its discovery in 1932. In 1964 it became the first oil field in California to produce a billion barrels, the second one in the nation to have done so at that time. The field, discovered after most of the LA basin’s fields, was attacked with vigor. Within just a few years the land above the field was noticeably sinking.

     By the 1940s, after only a decade of oil production, the land level was dropping to such an extent that buildings and roads cracked, oil well casings and pipelines sheared, and portions of the port flooded. Subsidence reached its peak, or pit, in the early 1950s, when the ground dropped by four feet in just two years. The lowest point of the subsidence bowl was directly above the middle of the oil field, at the northern end of Terminal Island. Here the land was 29 feet lower than it had been before oil production began. The nearby Naval Ship Yard had suffered damage and flooding and the entire port itself was in danger.

     Drilling for oil was banned in Long Beach.A program to inject water into the wells commenced, and soon the land stabilized and eventually began rising, as if inflated by air. The drilling ban was lifted in the early 1960s (though it remains in place to this day in the residential parts of town).

      Today an extensive network of water injection wells operates continuously, returning 105% of the volume of oil and water extracted from the field, in order to maintain equilibrium. Water injection will have to continue long after the oil is gone. Of the 6,150 wells drilled into the oil field over the years, 1,300 remain active. By most estimates, the oil field is 90% depleted. But that depends on the price, and the value, of oil in the market and the cost of extraction.

     The western, land-based side of the field, where most of the early pumping occurred, still has pumpjacks peppered around the industrial and residential areas of Wilmington, and the port of Long Beach has batteries of wells on its land. But most of the oil from the field is extracted through wells that were drilled after 1963, on the (then) less tapped eastern end of the field, from four artificial islands known as THUMS. 

     The THUMS Long Beach Company, named for the original field contractors Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell, was created to get at Long Beach’s oil with minimal disurbance to the city. The plan that was developed with the city was to position most of the wells offshore, on low-profile artificial land masses. The ten-acre islands were built quickly, starting in 1963, by barging rock from a quarry on Catalina Island. Rock was dumped in a linear fashion on the ocean floor, forming the outline of the four islands.

Once a rectangular ring above the water level was attained, sand was then sucked from the adjacent ocean floor to fill the space inside the ring to above water level.With the islands thus made, the most intense localized drilling operation in recent California history began.

     Eventually up to 300 wells were completed on each island, in a ring around their outer edge. Each well head sits a few feet from its neighbor in a trench, above which is a track that carries the moveable derrick. The city required that the two islands closest to shore have decorative walls which hide the industrial operations, and deflect their sound. These camouflaged features, which include lighted waterfalls and a building-like enclosure around the derrick, were designed by the architect Joseph Linesch, who also designed theme parks for Disney.

Los Angeles City Oil Field

     This was the first urban oil field. It was close enough to downtown that residential development grew up with the oilfield and many old houses around here had pumpjacks in their front yards for decades. This field is also notorious for the gases that come with the sulfury oil of the region, and the fear of their effects, on development. Methane alarms and vents can be seen in businesses and municipal structures built on top of LA’s oil fields – look for alarms on the walls at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Apple Store in the Grove, and for vents on the sidewalks around Park La Brea, where they emerge as painted steel poles out of the ground, like steampunk street sculpture. But the Los Angeles City Oil Field has Belmont. 

     Now open and called the Roybal Learning Center, Belmont ended up being a $400 million high school, the most expensive high school in USA. It took 15 years to build, and cost so much primarily because of uncertainties about oil field gases. Over the years of construction, demolition, redesign, politics, hearings, and demonstrations, construction was stalled so long that building codes changed, forcing more changes. Then there was the earthquake fault fears (oil collects along faultlines.) Finally opened a few years ago, the campus of 2,500 students is plumbed with an elaborate methane and hydrogen sulfide collection system that redirects the gas from under the building to tall vents outside, some of which double as light stanchions in the surrounding park and parking lots.

According to records of the State Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, (the agency that regulates the oil industry in California, and whose database locates and describes all of the more than 200,000 known wells in the state, operating and not), it was here, under the asphalt in the middle of the parking lot, where Doheny’s well was dug. The digging gives way to bailing, and the first oil well in Los Angeles is online, stimulating a regional boom.

Las Cienegas Oil Field

     Las Cienegas Oil Field had 18 wells on it and shut down in 1993, but like many oil sites, it has expensive closure issues, and is awaiting enough of an incentive, and momentum, for the legal and bureaucratic process to remediate it. Or perhaps it will go back to being an oil site, as the four other well sites on the Las Cienegas Field are all still active, collectively producing around 500,000 barrels per year. Three of the four are operated by PXP (at Washington and 4th; Adams and Gramercy; and Jefferson and Van Buren).

   Edward Doheny is Los Angeles’ first and biggest oil tycoon.  He discovered oil in the city of Los Angeles, drilling its first well in 1892. If there was father of the industry here, it would be him. He developed a lot of Mexico’s oil industry as well, presciently selling the holdings before the industry was nationalized. His fortune came from building up companies such as the Pan American Oil Company, and selling them off as other companies grew.

  The easternmost well cluster on the Las Cienegas Oil Field is owned by Allenco, a small oil company based out of Denver, which bought it from St. James Oil, with the hope of making it more productive. It is the smallest of the four active well sites on the field, pulling only around 16,000 barrels out a year through eight wells. Another 12 wells on site are idle.

This site was completely idle in the late 1990s, due to low oil prices, and calcification. Over time, oil wells can become plugged with mineral deposits, mostly left by the huge volumes of mineral rich water that flow through the wells, clogging the pores that seep into the drilled shaft and pipe.

     Well service companies, such as Halliburton and Schlumberger, are specialists in dealing with this problem, using acids, steam, explosives, and other techniques to get the oil flowing again. In this case, St. James began an acid treatment to unplug the wells, part of a project co-sponsored by the US Department of Energy. Hydrochloric and phosphoric acid was injected into five wells at the site, and by 2005, the wells were back online producing oil.



Written by arch5705

December 15, 2010 at 1:47 am

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