The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Urban Crude


camouflaged Cardiff oil well tower, atop the Beverly Hill Oil Field

CLUI photo
The camouflaged Cardiff oil well tower, atop the Beverly Hill Oil Field, is one of the landmarks of Los Angeles’ urban oil extraction. CLUI photo

THE LANDSCAPE OF OIL IN the USA touches every state in one way or another. Los Angeles is unique, as in addition to being notorious as a city that grew up with and for cars, it continues to be an active oil field. The CLUI focused on this subject for the third installment of a trilogy of oil exhibits in 2009.

Earlier in the year, the Center’s Trans-Alaska Pipeline exhibit represented conveyance and the movement of oil. Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, shown at the Blaffer Gallery in Houston, and later in modified form at the CLUI in Los Angeles, focused on refining, processing, and petrochemicals, the downstream end of the industry. Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin was about extractionabout oil fields themselves. It depicted and described the active oil fields in the LA basin, and the ways that oil is removed from them today.

Los Angeles is the most urban oil field in the United States. Here, the petroleum industry operates in the cracks, corners, and edges, hidden behind fences, and camouflaged into architecture, literally pulling oil out from under the feet of the city’s inhabitants.

Every year around 28 million barrels of oil are extracted from 41 oil fields under the Los Angeles Basin. (An area defined as the urban region of Southern California south of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains, and north of the San Joaquin Hills in Orange Countywhat the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources designates as District 1.) 12 million of these 28 million barrels come from portions of oil fields that extend past the shore, where three offshore platforms and four artificial islands extract oil from beneath the land and the ocean. The rest of the oil extracted in the basin comes from fields that were initially developed between 1880 and 1943, and they underlie a quarter of the city’s urban land.

oil field, Los Angeles

CLUI photo
Some classic oil fields remain in the Los Angeles basin, such as at the Brea-Olinda Oil Field, which still has some of the old fixed derricks in place. CLUI photo


CLUI photo
Dense clusters of pumpjacks behind tall fences are more common in the developed parts of the basin, such as here, next to the coast in Seal Beach. CLUI photo

map of the Los Angeles basin oil fields

CLUI photo
State Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources map of the Los Angeles basin.

In the mid 1920s, Los Angeles was the largest oil exporting region in the world. At the peak of production in 1969, Los Angeles produced 133 million barrels of oil. Today, of the thousands of wells known to exist, around 5,000 are still in use. Though the fields are being depleted, it has been estimated that less than half of the recoverable oil in the Los Angeles basin has been removed. This is a calculation based on economics: the relative price of oil, and the cost of extraction. Los Angeles is an active laboratory for how to extract oil from a developed city, a phenomena that may become more significant as more of the world develops, and urbanizes. Oil fields are not desired in most nonindustrial areasthey are generally considered unsightly, dirty, and smelly. Thus the oil industry has had to develop defenses against the rising value of land, and the encroachment of housing and retail. Sound muffling technology and visual barriers help shield the industry from the community. The concentration of wells into smaller areas, and the use of directional drilling techniques to access fields through diagonal and horizontal wells, are all technologies employed and refined in the Los Angeles basin.

While production continues in the cracks of the city, there are still several large swaths of exclusive oil production land that have remained in their pure industrial state, and are still used only as oil fields. These places are off limits to other forms of development. As land in Los Angeles increases in value, the pressure to convert the remains of these true “oil fields” into real estate will increase to the breaking point. The oil industry, though blamed for many urban woes, has paradoxically left a legacy of the largest remaining open spaces in the basin. How to develop these fields represents one of the major regional land use debates of the future. 

exhibit in gallery

CLUI photo
The exhibit at CLUI divided the region into six areas, each with a map and kiosk with images and text. Together, hundreds of well sites were discussed. Another wall had information and images about the larger context of oil in the state, including information about refineries and statewide consumption. A work table had printed maps of the major oil fields of the basin, indicating the location of each active and inactive well, as well as a terminal showing the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) database that lists, locates and gives the status of nearly every well in the state. CLUI photo