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Surf City

Huntington Beach Field, from the pier looking north along the Pacific Coast Highway; 1928-1929

This is a great (!) map of oil fields in the Los Angeles Basin.

Edward Doheny first discovered oil in the "Los Angeles City Oilfield" in 1892 in the Brea-Olinda area, near the Brea tar pits, and by 1900 there were over 500 wells producing in that trend. The wells there were shallow and marginally productive, due mostly to the 14 API gravity. But prices were good, in the $8-9 dollar range, and Ed Doheny became fabulously wealthy in early California oil development before moving part of his operations to Mexico in 1903-1905 where he began his historic work discovering the famous Golden Lane in the Tampico coastal plains. Upton Sinclair's great book, Oil ! was written about Doheny, as was the movie, There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day Lewis.

In 1900-1901, exploration in Southern California moved basin-ward, toward the coastline, along a surface ridge that had some 80 feet of relief above sea level. A small, commercial discovery was made in Beverly Hills, then little more than a big bean field. This surface ridge, a bluff actually rising up off the beach, was mapped and determined to be quite long, trending from the Newport Bay area northwest up to Inglewood, and thought to mirror the subsurface. Because of oil seeps and methane in water wells, more and more wells were drilled along the ridge.

In 1919 Standard of California leased land NW of downtown Huntington Beach and drilled its Huntington Land Co. No. A-1 well where it found lots of water and about 70 BOPD of low gravity oil. It was not much of a well but gave more insight into the subsurface ridge theory along the beach.

Standard then scooted further to the northwest into the Bolsa Chica wetlands area and leased the Bolsa Chica Gun Club, a hunting and fishing club for wealthy Californians, movie stars and famous people from the rest of the country, like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, right, with a limit of ducks on the front end of their vehicle. The Bolsa Chica No. A-1 blew oil over the crown several under feet and, once controlled, was finally completed at about 2,500 feet for 1,780 BOPD and no water. The boom was then on in Huntington Beach and the rest is history.

With this oil boom, like all booms, came crooks, criminals and other misfits and the sleepy little village of Huntington quickly turned almost lawless. People that had never seen an oil well before began leasing town lots and promoting wells, or stock in wells based on proximity to mighty Standard's holdings. Huntington Central Oil Company was founded in 1921 and its stock could be bought for 10 cents a share. It drilled a well on a lot downtown that reportedly came on at 10,000 BOPD but two days later was making only 120 BOPD for "mechanical" reasons. It didn't pay one of its rig hands, who then got pissed off and set the wooden derrick of this well on fire, burning it to the ground, along with some downtown businesses.

Near the Bolsa Chica tidelands and estuary and up on the bluff overlooking the beach, a California real estate agent bought several acres of land and subdivided it into 25' x 25' lots for homes. In 1922 the real estate business was not very good so the developer hooked up with the Encyclopedia Britannica company and began selling encyclopedias...with these 25 x 25 lots of land thrown in as a bonus. Within months all of the lots were sold out. Union leased the entire subdivision, called the "Encyclopedia Section," and made some of the best wells in all of Huntington Beach Field. Some of these lots, and minerals, were then actually sold to Union for thousands of dollars each. Under rule of capture principles, first come, first serve, 25 x 25 foot lots equaled one oil well.

Huntington Beach was rockin' by 1925-1928 and additional pays were found at deeper depths. Along the beach, drilling was so dense homes were moved off lots adjoining the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to make room for more wells. In Huntington Beach Field proper, some 282 wells made 34MM barrels of oil in 1926. The price of oil plummeted to 5o cents a barrel and Union called for industry restraint in drilling more wells and overproducing... unsuccessfully, of course.

By the early 1930's many wells drilled along the PCH were deviated out into the water. The City of Huntington Beach partitioned most of its tidal lands and shallow offshore in to a separate unit, deeded half the royalties to the State, then leased to Standard and a few others.

In 1933 Wilshire Oil Company's HB-15 well, located on 18th Street and the PCH, on a leased "lot," had potential for 4,800 BOPD. The State suspected something fishy and ran directional surveys on the well. It found it deviated some 75 degrees from vertical and the bottom hole location to be 1,400 feet away, illegally located in the tideland unit, where neither the City, nor the State, were receiving any royalty. There wasn't much left of Wilshire Oil Company after all that got straightened out.

By the mid 1930's wooden derricks were torn down, and burned in giant bonfires, and replaced by standard derricks. Rotary drilling replaced cable too drilling, new electric log technology by Schlumberger was used to correlate new sands in the field complex, new stand alone pumping units were used in Huntington Beach and parts of the field were water flooded, even steam flooded.

By the late 1930's Huntington Beach received a second, new boom as even deeper pays were found, and many more wells were added. They packed them into empty lots, in people's back yards, front yards, wherever there was room a smelly oil well was drilled.

This is not a drilling company yard, this is a typical neighborhood in the town of North Huntington Beach, 1948.

The Boogie Man visited Huntington Beach one night in 1957 when Santa Anna winds blew down seven standard derricks and laid them across the Pacific Coast Highway where they had to be cut up and hauled off before traffic could be restored. Imagine being a pumper having to call that in to the boss. As I have said before, that Boogie Man bastard gets around.

1963 looking south down the PCH toward the pier. That year Huntington Beach had a total of 1,770 wells in it that made 16MM BO.

Standard of California eventually became Chevron. Union of California ultimately became Unocal and in March of 1990 Unocal, after a long chicken fight with the City of Huntington Beach, agreed to plug and abandoned 25 wells on the west, beach side of the PCH. All the above entities somehow became Chevron, who eventually sold most of Huntington Beach Field to California Resources, the current operator.

Huntington Beach Field has stacked pays from 1,500 feet to 4,300 feet and oil gravities range from 15 degrees to 34 degrees API; at the end of 2020 it has produced close to 1.3 G BO and supposedly still has 900MM barrels of recoverable oil left in it, only about 30-40% of that will be produced before abandonment because of the need for more wells in dense urban areas.

The entire Los Angeles Basin is believed to still have over 4.o G BO of recoverable oil left in place, none of it reachable anymore because of population densities and strong anti-oil sentiment by the public. California, by the way, consumes 10% of all the gasoline used in America each year, second only to a very rural, Texas. The state of California refuses to allow additional offshore exploration in areas of vast, proven reserves. One of the consequences of not taking the shortest route between points A and B is that the 2nd largest oil spill in North American history, and the most harmful to the environment, was in Valdez, Alaska in 1989; the oil loaded on the tanker that went aground was headed for... Long Beach, California.


Huntington Beach Pier use to be a cool place back in the 60's early 70's, The long board era was still in full swing and surf music from the likes of Jan and Dean, above, Dick Dell, The Ventures and of course, The Beach Boys was a blast to listen to. California was fun back in the day!

I think there might be a city ordinance now against "shooting" the pier but in the good old days, when the vibe was still cool, it was done a lot. I thought I would try, backside, 50 years ago and chickened out. The barnacles on the pier pilings are like razor blades.


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