PetroLA: Energy and the Development of Southern California

By Char Miller

Oil made Southern California—but at a steep price.

 "Photo courtesy Orange County Archives." 


It powers our modern economy and fuels the region’s mobility and its related flow of goods and services. That’s evident every time a freight train rumbles out of the Long Beach-LA ports heading east to the sprawling Colton rail-yard. It’s clear each day as 18-wheelers and cars jam up the #10, #60, and #210 freeways, concrete corridors of carbon monoxide.

It is also central to the spatial design of our communities. Without oil, there would be no freeways, no rail lines, no ports or shipping. Without oil, there would be no suburbs. Without oil, Long Beach would not be Long Beach, Wilmington not Wilmington.

We don’t always see these connections because oil is so tightly woven into every aspect of our lives—from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to the gadgets, tools, and toys we buy—that its presence seems invisible and inevitable.

Unless, that is, your home is located near this region’s complex transportation grid or one of its major oilfields or refineries. That’s when oil’s serious downwind consequences are literally in your face. No surprise, these areas are home to some of Southern California’s poorest and least advantaged.

Just ask anyone who lives near Allenco Energy Company’s University Park pumps, close to USC’s campus. After residents filed hundreds of complaints about headache-inducing odors, nagging respiratory problems, and chronic nosebleeds, in late July 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose inspectors were sickened when they visited the mismanaged site, fined the company nearly $100,000 for regulatory violations.

Fracking is also worrying hundreds of thousands of people living adjacent to the Inglewood/Baldwin Hills oilfield (the largest in LA County) and those around the Brea-Olinda site (the largest in Orange County), who are convinced  it is negatively impacting air and water quality. 

There is nothing new about these complaints in Southern California: the close connection between energy production, residential neighborhoods, and community health has been a hot-button issue since the first black-gold strike in the region in 1892. Indeed, this tight link between past and present was the subject of an important conference entitled PetroLA held on October 10-11, 2014 at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater in Claremont. The symposium probed the historical debates over and contemporary struggles to resolve Southern California’s century-long dependence on fossil fuels—and the troubling consequences that that dependency has produced.

Those consequences were obvious from the first moment speculators drilled into LA’s streetscape, punched holes in its parks, and built derricks along every square foot of beachfront. Even as many early 20th century Angelenos scrambled to take advantage of this oil boom, others, who also benefited from the rush, battled against the industry’s unregulated expansion into their subdivisions. Their complicity in the very thing that they steadfastly opposed is one reason why Long Beach State historian Nancy Quam-Wickham describes that era’s opposition as emblematic of Los Angeles’ “uneasy relationship with petroleum.”

That relationship grew ever more complicated in the frenzy of World War II. Southern Californians were as patriotic as the next American, but when oil companies wrapped themselves in the flag to secure political support for their mad-dash pumping of all crude, regardless of location and whoever was displaced, some citizens and politicians fought back against what one decried as a “wildcat oil scheme.” The federal government entered the fray and squashed attempts to regulate oil production, but the fact that even a wartime emergency did not silence critics of unrestrained pumping is remarkable.

Peacetime brought prosperity that fueled a more aggressive anti-petro movement. Witness what happened in late January 1969 when Union Oil’s offshore Platform A blew out off the Santa Barbara coast. The resulting 100,000-barrel spill, at the time the largest in U.S. history, devastated wildlife populations, blackened beaches, and infuriated the public. The backlash went national, intensified in part by the publication of the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights. Its author, Roderick Frazier Nash, who discussed the galvanizing impact of the Santa Barbara oil spill at PetroLA, offered a powerful challenge to the fossil-fuel industry’s unchecked clout: “We must develop a vision to see that in regard to the natural world private and corporate ownership should be so limited as to preserve the interest of society and the integrity of the environment.”

Nash’s galvanizing words found dynamic expression in Kate Orff’s presentation to the conference, “Petrochemical America: Picturing Cancer Alley.” Although Orff, a landscape architect on the faculty of Columbia University, framed her talk around the devastating results that a century of oil and gas production has had on Louisiana, notably the human and natural communities along the Mississippi River, no one could miss the implied connection between the social and environmental injustices that have wracked the Pelican State and those existing in the Golden State. “The American landscape,” she noted, is everywhere “a machine for consuming oil and gas.”

The enduring legacy of that consumption is central to the ongoing debates over the production and consumption of energy in Southern California, and was the subject of PetroLA’s afternoon sessions. Focusing on air pollution in the region, Aaron Katzenstein, a climate scientist at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, explored the historic and contemporary efforts to control tailpipe and smokestack emissions. And while the air-shed has seen considerable improvement since the 1970s when the San Gabriel Mountains seemed to disappear from view for months at a time, the ports, along with rail, truck, and automobile transportation, continue to befoul every breath we take.

New energy sources—or rather old sources re-energized—add to the dilemmas confronting the Southland in the first decades of the 21stc. So argued NRDC’s Damon Nagami. Hydraulic fracturing technologies and acidization of oil-and-gas wells have created new threats to groundwater and air quality around the country. To fight against these hazards, the NRDC is working with organizations in the Baldwin Hills, around the Brea-Olinda oilfield, and in Santa Barbara County. These campaigns, and such regulatory initiatives such as SB 4 (2013), the first significant anti-fracking legislation in California, make a larger point, too. Protecting one’s home ground and physical health is intimately connected to larger concerns about global climate disruption that fossil fuels are accelerating.

This framing of the debate also flips on its head the argument an early Los Angeles oil wildcatter advanced in support of the “smoke, noise, and dirt” his industry produced, which he deemed essential “to the growth, expansion, and upbuilding of our beautiful city." Heeding oil’s many critics, he declared, would turn "our city of the living…into a veritable city of the dead.”

We know now the opposite is true.

A shorter version of this essay appeared as “Steep price of oil in Southern California,” Los Angeles Daily News, October 6, 2014.