Before Hollywood, The Oil Industry Made LA | KERA News

Before Hollywood, The Oil Industry Made LA

Apr 5, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 2:30 pm

Ever watch The Beverly Hillbillies and wonder why Jed Clampett moved to Beverly Hills and not Texas or some town that we more closely associate with oil?

Even Angelenos forget sometimes that the Clampetts came first, then the swimming pools and movie stars. Think J. Paul Getty or Edward Doheny, men who made their fortunes on oil and then made LA.

Los Angeles is a world center for transportation, fashion, manufacturing and — above all — entertainment. In the heart of this metropolis, oil is hidden in plain sight. If you go on a walk to clear your head at NPR's Culver City studios, cross the street and you're in one of the largest producing urban oil fields in America.

"When you think about Los Angeles, you tend to think of big skyscrapers and beaches. You don't generally tend to think of oil wells," says Lars Perner, a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

"This is fairly valuable real estate, with some rather expensive homes close by," he says of the Inglewood oil field. Perner points to the Baldwin Hills and View Park neighborhoods that are considered the "Black Beverly Hills" for former residents such as Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Nancy Wilson. "This oil is clearly very valuable to justify using that space for those oil pumps," Perner says.

He says that as iconic as the Hollywood sign or the movie studios are, it's the oil wells that made modern life in LA possible. The LA Basin is very isolated and vast. That makes getting goods into the area difficult, and it made transporting goods around the region very tough. That is until the invention of the automobile and the discovery of oil.

"Back in those days there weren't really a lot of regulations as to how you could drill, so a lot of people got very entrepreneurial. And they were trying to get pumps onto their property before their neighbors could," Perner says.

You can find oil wells hidden all over Los Angeles. Beverly Hills High School has multiple oil wells on its campus. (The school's wells were the subject of a class action suit brought by Erin Brockovich). Edward Doheny, for whom the major thoroughfare in Beverly Hills is named, discovered oil under a private residence in 1892. His find set off an oil-drilling spree. The battle over the rights to that oil could fill several history books and many films. As J. Paul Getty once said, "The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights."

Part of what made Los Angeles oil so attractive, Perner says, was that the oil was close to the surface and easy to extract. Add to that the newly invented automobile, incredible weather and a port, and that's a recipe for exponential expansion.

But Perner suggests that without oil there would be no modern LA. "Well, the petroleum industry of course made it possible to have Hollywood." And he says it made it made it possible to build an infrastructure to transport agricultural produce from other areas to help support the growth of a relatively large city very quickly.

"Los Angeles was a sleepy pueblo that became LA, and Hollywood and the studios all popped up and people got wealthy because of oil," says David Slater, chief operating officer of Signal Hill Petroleum. In 1921, oil was discovered on Signal Hill, a city near the Port of Long Beach. These two discoveries are what made Los Angeles one of the world's major petroleum fields.

It's difficult to overstate just how much oil was being produced in LA back in the 1920s.

"The production from here made Los Angeles the equivalent of Saudi Arabia today," Slater says.

Today, the city of Signal Hill is one of the largest urban producers of oil in the U.S. But the steep drop in oil prices has had a big impact on smaller oil companies like Signal Hill Petroleum.

"The painful part, though, is when prices go down, contracting our business and eliminating jobs is never ever a fun thing to go through," says Slater. His company has shrunk from 150 employees to 85.

As he looked out over the bay of Long Beach, where supertankers line the horizon, Slater said he wished he could drill more. He joked that cheap gas wasn't completely bad, as he drove us down Signal Hill in his white Escalade.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the most valuable industries in Los Angeles is struggling. We're not talking about what's at the box office or what's getting the most hits on TMZ today. We're talking about oil, black gold, Texas tea. LA still has a number of oil fields. In fact, more than a third of the oil that Californians use comes from California. And with extremely low oil prices, there's a big effect on the region's economy. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: OK, we're here. Los Angeles is a world center for transportation, fashion, manufacturing and, above all, entertainment. In the heart of this metropolis, one of the most important industries is hidden in plain sight, just like this oil field I'm standing in, which is just a few hundred yards from NPR's Culver City studios and a few miles from downtown Los Angeles.

LARS PERNER: When you think about Los Angeles, you tend to think of big skyscrapers and beaches, and you don't generally tend to think of oil wells.

GLINTON: Lars Perner is with the Marshall School of Business at USC. I took him for a drive to explore some of LA's oil fields.

PERNER: We're looking at an oil field very close to downtown Los Angeles near Baldwin Hills. And this is fairly valuable real estate with some rather expensive homes close by. And then this oil is clearly very valuable to justify using that space for those oil pumps.

GLINTON: Now, as iconic as the Hollywood sign is or the movie studios are, the oil wells, they came first. They date way back to the mid-1880s.

PERNER: Back in those days, there weren't really a lot of regulations as to how you could drill, so a lot of people got very entrepreneurial and they were trying to get pumps onto their property before the neighbors could.

GLINTON: In fact, local history buffs will tell you LA's oil rush is the thing that put Los Angeles on the map. Part of what made LA's oil so attractive, Perner says, was that the oil was close to the surface - you know, easy to extract. Add the newfangled automobile, incredible weather, a port and that's a recipe for exponential expansion.

PERNER: Well, the petroleum industry, of course, made it possible to have Hollywood where you needed to spread out, but it also made it possible to build an infrastructure to help transport in agricultural produce from other areas so you could support the growth of a relatively large city very quickly.

DAVID SLATER: Los Angeles was a sleepy pueblo that became LA and Hollywood. And the studios all popped up, and people got wealthy because of oil.

GLINTON: David Slater is the chief operating officer for Signal Hill Petroleum.

SLATER: And we are standing in the middle of the Long Beach Signal Hill oil field on top of the hill in the city of Signal Hill.

GLINTON: It's difficult to overstate just how much oil was being produced right here in LA back in the '20s.

SLATER: The production from here made Los Angeles the equivalent of Saudi Arabia today. That's how prolific and how much oil relative to the rest of the world was coming out of Los Angeles basin.

GLINTON: Today, the Signal Hill oil field is still one of the largest producers in the U.S. but the steep drop in oil prices has had a big impact on smaller oil companies like signal Hill. Again, David Slater.

SLATER: And the painful part, though, is when prices go down, contracting our business and eliminating jobs is never, ever a fun thing to go through.

GLINTON: And you have about 150 employees. How is that affecting you?

SLATER: We don't have 150 employees anymore. We now have about 85 employees.

GLINTON: Slater said he'd love to hire them back but he won't be able to until oil prices go up. You see, here in Southern California, cheap gas can be costly. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.