Huntington Beach as an oil town: those days are long gone

Returning home from a yoga session on the beach near Lifeguard Tower 14, not far from crews working to contain the massive oil spill from an offshore pipeline, Julie Green passed a vestige of oil history from his city.

It was a single pump jack, surrounded by barbed wire fences and incongruously wedged between expensive homes on 14th Street and the Pacific Coast Highway. For longtime Huntington Beach residents, surviving oil wells seem to fade into the background, like tall palm trees and distant freight ships.

“I don’t even really notice it,” said Green, 56, who arrived in town in the mid-1980s. “It’s just part of the scenery.”

The presence of the oil industry in this landscape was once overwhelming. Huntington Beach used to boast the Oil City nickname, and famous photos from the 1920s show beachgoers in the shadow of towering wooden oil derricks that appeared to be apocalyptically smoldering on the coast.

The Huntington Beach High School football team is still called the Oilers, and its icon is a derrick. But the city is now known as Surf City, and multi-million dollar homes, gated communities and luxury hotels can be found where oil fields once stretched.

It’s a place where “green city meets blue water,” says the city, with just 151 active wells, up from more than 1,000 in the early 1970s.

Even as crews battled to contain this month’s oil spill, city council voted 5 to 1 to move the city’s fleet of 900 vehicles, including police cars, to renewable energy. Over 90% are still gasoline, and the effort will take years.

“Yes, we have an oil history, but from a city perspective, and for me personally, there really is no need to pump oil out of the ground anymore,” said Dan Kalmick, 39, first millennial of the city council, which co-sponsored the measure. “We respect our history, but we are definitely moving forward.”

As a snapshot of the city’s past juxtaposed with its present, he pointed to the pump jacks operating in the parking lot outside City Hall, next to car shades covered with solar panels.

“’Legacy’ is the best way to describe oil production in Huntington Beach,” Kalmick said. “It’s our legacy, and it’s a legacy business at this point.”

In 1901 the city was called Pacific City.

“It was supposed to be a tourist destination,” said Darrell Rivers, who works at the Huntington Beach Historical Society. “It was originally intended to be the Pacific version of Atlantic City. There were a lot of people who wanted it to be a seaside resort.

In the 1910s, according to city historian Jerry Person, land was so cheap that an East Coast publisher offered bonus property plots with the purchase of a full set of the Encyclopedia. Americana.

In December 1920, shortly after the discovery of a large oil reserve sparked a speculation frenzy in the town, Huntington Central Oil Co. ran a newspaper ad touting the pledge of its 10-cent share: “FORTUNE – FORTUNE – FORTUNE !! “

The savages have come; the population exploded; houses and trees were cut down to build wells.

“It brought in a lot of money; it brought in a lot of people, ”Rivers said of the oil industry. “The boom is really from 1920 to 1970, although it is still happening today.”

Rivers said Huntington Beach “has always had a hard time figuring out what it wants to be – a beach town, an oil town, a manufacturing hub, a farming community, a quiet suburb. And even today we have these arguments.

But the city’s relationship with oil has been thwarted.

“There has always been an underlying resistance to the mere presence and physical appearance of the oil industry everywhere,” Rivers said.

Multiple factors contributed to Huntington Beach’s long, slow death as an oil town. Wells became less lucrative when oil prices crashed in the 1980s, and soaring real estate values ​​spurred development. Angry homeowners have complained about the noise and smell of wells in their increasingly expensive neighborhoods.

There had always been high-profile calamities: oil spouting in wetlands, derricks turning into hells. Off the coast, an oil tanker crashed its anchor in 1990 and dumped 417,000 gallons of crude, fouling the beach. That same year, under pressure from the city and environmental groups, Chevron agreed to close its remaining 25 wells on the ocean side of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Along with the platforms, the remains of Oil City – like the slab in the grass at Discovery Well Park that commemorates the city’s first oil strike in May 1920 – are easy to spot.

State officials are trying to clean up another vestige of the industry, the 38-acre Magnolia Street and Hamilton Avenue toxic waste site known as the Ascon site. It was a landfill from the 1930s to the 1980s and a depot for petroleum waste.

Economically, oil has long been eclipsed by tourism in Huntington Beach. City spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said Huntington Beach earns just $ 632,000 per year in oil well license taxes and pipeline franchise fees, which is about 0.3% of the total. budget of 228 million dollars.

The city makes millions of dollars from its hotels, not only through property taxes, but also through a transitional occupancy tax that grossed it $ 16 million in 2019, in large part thanks to luxury hotels from PCH.

“The city was ‘born’ because of the boom in the oil industry,” Carey said in an email, but has shifted to prioritizing “clean energy and global tourism”.

“Even though you see rigs in the area, the oil industry is not very widespread in the community today and is not a major source of income or labor,” added Carey.

A pelican flies over the Esther oil rig and container ships anchored off Huntington Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The oil-fueled growth city is now grappling with a mile-wide slick of crude from a 131,000-gallon spill from an offshore pipeline. (The pipeline extends to a platform in federal waters off the coast of Huntington Beach, but is not regulated by the city.)

One of the city’s remaining oil fields is at Edwards Street and Ellis Avenue, next to a dog park where Claudia Albrecht, 52, visiting from Las Vegas, let her pet roam last week because that the oil spill had closed the dog beach.

“Huntington is such a beautiful place,” Albrecht said. “The beach is so long and wide. That’s a shame. It’s just a shame.

She and her husband were renting through Airbnb accommodation near PCH and 14th Street, where the lone oil rig pumps regularly behind barbed wire, in a pretty apartment building. “The first time we saw this, we were like, ‘What is this? How is that possible, right next to a house? ‘ “

Sammy Alloush, 40, has lived across the street from the bizarre 14th Street oil rig for six months and has gotten used to it.

“At first I was angry,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Why isn’t there a beautiful condo? Then I thought, ‘It’s actually more work to get rid of it.’ “

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve sits on county property just north of Huntington Beach. Thomas Anderson, executive director of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, an environmental group that has fought to preserve wetlands from development, said the recent oil spill had not affected the reserve. But there are still a few oil pumps in the middle of the wetlands.

“It is an extreme irony that one of the main reasons that Bolsa Chica was not developed earlier is that there were very productive oil fields,” Anderson said.

Over the decades, several attempts to build an oil museum in Huntington Beach have failed.

DJ Waldie, a writer who has studied the history of the California coast, said it was important to place Huntington Beach in the context of the “oil belt” that stretches to Oxnard.

“It provided the power source to turn Southern California into an industrial powerhouse,” Waldie said. “It also created a kind of get-rich-quick philosophy for a lot of Southern Californians.”

Depending on one’s perspective, images of oil derricks towering over the California coast in the 1920s could be seen as “environmental degradation” or “corporate abuse of small landowners,” said Waldie. They could also be seen as a reflection of a “kind of dream time”, where digging a hole in the ground could “offer unimaginable wealth”.

“The Californian dream,” Waldie said, is “painted in oils”.

Kalmick, the city council member, said he owned two electric cars and had not bought gasoline for two years. He said he hopes his 2-year-old daughter grows up in a city that has put oil behind her.

“I hope she doesn’t need to know what an oil rig is,” Kalmick said. “It’s a bygone era.

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