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Tracking Tar

Beneath Hollywood's fakery, the very real geology of Los Angeles bubbles and hisses

by William L. Fox

Published in the January/February 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph | David McNew | Getty Images

It was the volcano pushing up out of the lake at the end of the street that finally got me thinking. Earlier in the day, finding myself restless and unable to concentrate, I’d taken a walk over to the La Brea Tar Pits to meditate on the methane bubbles that rise lugubriously up through the viscous water. I circumambulated the twenty-three-acre park in a clockwise direction, against the flow of the elementary and middle school students being herded by their teachers, and paused to lean on handrails to watch tourists pitch lit cigarettes at the three-foot-wide burps.

The gas bubbles in the tar pits were, as always, moderately chaotic in their behavior. They rise from vents underneath a large pond of accumulated groundwater that has filled in an asphalt quarry dug in the nineteenth century. The gas roils the water into a yellow-green froth; large ripples subside quickly on the oil-slicked surface and barely reach the shore.

A byproduct of bacteria eating up vegetative matter, methane is the predominant component of natural gas, and is often associated with oil fields. It’s odorless, colorless, and relatively stable, which is a good thing considering the well-aimed cigarettes. Nothing ignites here, as the gas disperses too quickly, but when concentrated in small places and mixed with air, as transpired in the basement of a nearby department store on March 24, 1985, it explodes rather nicely. Fortunately, no one was in the basement of Ross Dress-for-Less when it blew, the building rising up just slightly, then settling back down, although twenty-two people were injured. Shortly thereafter management sealed the foundation and vented the basement; you can see pipes at the back of the building that convey the gas to roof level, where it wafts harmlessly away over the parking lot.

Los Angeles lies in an active seismic zone atop an oil field—a dramatically appropriate place, perhaps, for the epicenter of the movie industry. A few months earlier I had watched film crews drape the multistoried Beverly Center shopping mall down the road with plastic in preparation for shooting the street scenes in the 1997 disaster flick Volcano. Apart from the incorrect premise that a volcano would push its way up through the middle of LA, and the fact that the movie had little in the way of a plot, it actually got the eruption down pretty well. The special effects people studied films of lava, built a tabletop version of Wilshire Boulevard, and rolled a variety of goos down it until they got one that looked realistic when filmed at that miniature scale. What finally worked best was a concoction of methylcellulose, a wood industry byproduct that’s used to thicken milkshakes by certain fast food chains that shall remain nameless, and pigments that fluoresced when lit with ultraviolet lights, thus glowing like embers.

To stage Volcano, Twentieth Century Fox received the largest fire permit ever issued to a movie set, and embarked on a construction project that took three to four hundred people more than 132,000 work hours to complete. Add 150,000 gallons of liquid propane, 2,500 pounds of explosives, and 250 tons of shredded paper to stand in for ash—and you have eruptions, lava, and a volcanic dandruff that settled gently on the shoulders of Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche as they stumbled past the seven-eighths scale model of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

That evening, as I sank into my couch to watch the hummock of glowing lava ooze down Wilshire Boulevard, it occurred to me that the reality of the La Brea Tar Pits might be more interesting, and disturbing, than the fictional volcano.

THE LA BREA TAR PITS sit at the southern edge of what’s called the Salt Lake Oil Field, a relatively small sandstone reservoir from which oil is pumped at several locations, including a fenced and unobtrusive well station on the northeast corner of the Farmers Market near the CBS studios.

“LA is the richest oil basin in North America, and the second richest in the world,” said Hal Washburn, one of the owners of Breitburn Energy. He unpinned a large map from his wall and spread it over his desk between us. Dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt, with tan skin and a short beard going gray, Washburn looked like a man who would rather be outside than in an office tower near the intersection of two freeways on the border of Santa Monica.

“Here are the major fields in the basin. Los Angeles has five out of the ten top fields in the country. See this one, the Wilmington field?” he asked, pointing to a long green blob stretching from Long Beach to Redondo. “That’s a billion barrels. And this one over here, that’s half a billion. So’s this one.” The fields were grouped irregularly along two converging axes, two fault zones. One ran northwest from Newport Beach to Inglewood, and the other, actually a series of associated faults, tended more northerly from Santa Fe Springs through downtown, then bent west to run along the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, which define the northwestern edge of the Los Angeles Basin.

Reinhard Suchland, a compact and quiet man who is the company’s manager of geology, joined us, adding, “The ground here is very petroliferous, the oil only 5 to 10 million years old and in strata 15 to 20 million years old. It’s pretty young oil.” Suchland was so matter-of-fact that even his characterizing 10-million-year-old oil as young sounded reasonable.

Washburn had taken the opportunity to slip out to the conference room. He returned bearing a large framed print of an old photo showing the Salt Lake field early in the twentieth century. “The early fields were found in the nineteenth century by surface features, like the tar seeps at La Brea. Here’s Wilshire Boulevard. Look at this; there’s a well on every five acres, at least.” I peered into the black-and-white photograph, trying to locate the site of my home in Park La Brea—a seventy-five-acre development of townhouses and apartment towers built in the 1940s that has since more than doubled in size.

The earliest oil well in California was drilled in Newhall north of the San Fernando Valley in 1865, but it wasn’t until 1876 that commercial oil was produced in the state by the company that would become the Standard Oil Company of California. Edward Doheny’s discovery of oil in downtown Los Angeles set off a genuine boom in 1892; within five years the city had five hundred derricks. The truly giant fields in the LA Basin were struck in Huntington Beach in 1920, then under Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill the following year. According to the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, by 1998 about 170,000 oil, gas, and geothermal wells had been drilled in California; roughly 86,000 of them were still active, run by seven hundred separate companies. A total of 46,434 oil and gas wells alone were being operated in the state, some by companies owning no more than one or two wells. Washburn, who estimated that there were probably more than a hundred oil companies presently pumping in LA, told me of one local operation that consisted of a ninety-year-old woman who owned a couple of wells in her backyard that she had inherited from her husband, and which she still operated single-handedly.

“All the big companies are mostly out[side] of LA now, consolidating their operations,” Washburn told me. “The last significant onshore drilling in the basin around where you live was done in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Beverly Hills field was being drilled then. The Salt Lake field, like others, was consolidated, most of the derricks taken down. What you do now is slant drilling from an existing well off at an angle to tap into new, usually deeper oil-bearing strata. That Farmers Market site has twenty wells operating there. It’s not got a lot of oil left, maybe twenty or thirty years’ worth, depending on the price.”

I was amazed at this, having walked nonchalantly through the gate at the Farmers Market site a couple of weeks before when driving around to locate wells near Park La Brea. I’d counted what I thought were a maximum of six wells, just humps of yellow pipes and valves set relatively low to the ground, before sticking my head in the manager’s office and starting to ask questions. I had startled the two men inside, who obviously weren’t expecting visitors and who politely but firmly noted I was trespassing and that I should contact the corporate offices if I had any questions. They gave me the phone number that led me to Washburn and his geologist, watched carefully as I left, then closed and locked the gate behind me. Another well-hunting trip the same week had led me to the Beverly Center, the behemoth mall located about a mile west of the La Brea Tar Pits. At the parking entrance facing Beverly Hills sat an active drilling rig, the only oil well I know of at a shopping mall.

I hadn’t realized that it was tapped into the west end of the same field until Washburn mentioned it.

I was beginning to realize that what Hal Washburn saw as a small field was actually several square miles in extent. And while I conceived of it in terms of two-dimensional acreage, he was describing it in three dimensions of planetary volume and barrels in reserve.

Every city has a metaphorical geography that determines and reflects the nature of its growth. In Los Angeles, petroleum is a widespread fact of nature underfoot, one of the primary reasons for the city’s existence, and the fuel that both allowed and necessitated the creation of a grid large enough to cover the basin, therefore determining the warp and weft of its urban fabric. Ironically, during the latter half of the last century as we assiduously cultivated environmental awareness, we mostly lost sight of oil in LA. The energy companies quite understandably did everything they could to camouflage their activities, reacting to our growing disdain for visible signs of industrial activity. Derricks were dismantled or covered up to resemble buildings—like the Breitburn rig on Pico and Genesse, which is camouflaged as an office building—and landscaping was installed around pumps to screen them from view. Only in a few instances are we reminded that what we’re walking around on is not a two-dimensional sheet of paper—like the street map we carry in the car—but a planet with three dimensions in space and great depth in time.

WHAT WE CALL TAR PITS occur when oil seeps to the surface and lighter chemical compounds evaporate. But the first thing we should do is rid ourselves of the notion that we’re dealing with tar (even though brea in Spanish means “tar”), which is a byproduct of materials that have a woody origin, such as coal or peat. This stuff is asphaltum, more commonly called asphalt, which is basically the lowest grade of crude oil and not to be confused with what we drive on, which is pavement, a mixture of asphalt and crushed rock or aggregate.

For thousands of years, asphalt was used by the local Chumash and Tongva (or Gabrielino) Indians to caulk baskets and canoes, haft their weapons, and glue together wounds. During the 1700s, residents of the pueblo near the La Brea Tar Pits used the asphalt to waterproof their roofs, and under the terms of the 1828 Rancho La Brea Land Grant, residents were guaranteed access to all of it that they could carry away. Asphalt from the quarry that is now the tar pit was sold in the 1800s for thirteen to sixteen dollars a ton and used as far away as San Francisco.

Nowadays, the “tar” is more of a nuisance than anything else. In the twenty-three acres of Hancock Park, which includes the George C. Page Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the stuff oozes up inexorably in seeps small and large, a visible reminder that there is, indeed, an underground geology to Los Angeles.

The park was extensively landscaped in 1998 and the old seeps in the parking lots were paved over, a peculiar notion perhaps thought of as akin to fighting fire with fire. It didn’t work. Where two seeps covering several square yards in the northeast-corner parking lot had been blocked off for years with curbing and chain-link fence, workers removed barriers and laid down fresh pavement. In roughly the same spots two years later, the pavement was buckled by seeps about six inches in diameter. Every couple of seconds a bubble of natural gas a half inch across burbled up to the surface. Maintenance crews spread kitty litter around the two sticky spots, but there were always tire and dog tracks leading off in several directions.

Then there are the seeps in the grass. These are more insidious in that, should you step on a small one, you will carry away with you one of nature’s more tenacious substances. The slight sucking sound your shoes will make as you walk across a linoleum floor, leaving behind tiny black bits for your mate to step upon and, in turn, further disperse through the house, is the sound of impending domestic doom.

Petroleum, its byproducts, and associated elements are virtually omnipresent across the Los Angeles Basin, which even a glance at the map hanging in Hal Washburn’s office makes obvious. Natural gas, composed mostly of methane and ethane, is extremely flammable when not dispersed. At several points along my street in Park La Brea, white plastic pipes rise from the ground, climb up the two-story townhouses, and vent “wild” methane away from kitchen windows—ironic considering how much we pay for the “tame,” which is to say metered, gas we use in our stoves.

Methane is not something you want to spend much time breathing. Although it’s not rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a particularly hazardous toxin—apart from its extreme flammability—when combined with steam it yields carbon monoxide that in sufficient concentrations can suffocate you. Its toxicity is benign, however, when compared to hydrogen sulfide, which often accompanies natural gas and occurs naturally around oil fields. Also a product of organic decomposition, it gives off the classic “rotten egg” odor we associate with swamps, marshes, and the northwest corner of Hancock Park. If the stoplight at the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Sixth Street is red, the odor accumulates quickly enough in the car to make you roll up the windows and switch the fan to recirculation mode.

Methane under certain conditions can burn so hot and clean that it’s invisible; you literally can’t see the flame. In a corollary fashion, hydrogen sulfide when it occurs in the range of 3 to 5 parts per million (ppm) is only a nasty smell; at 100 ppm, however, it deadens your olfactory sense, which means you no longer know you’re in danger. Exposure to it over several minutes at 250 ppm renders you unconscious; at 1,000 ppm, it takes only one or two breaths of the gas to kill you.

A SINGULAR REMINDER that Angelenos live on top of oil—and one of the more controversial and visible collisions of nature and culture in the basin—is the construction of the Belmont Learning Complex near downtown and atop the Los Angeles City Oil Field. In 1999, members of the school board halted work in mid-construction on the $200 million facility, the nation’s most expensive high school, when both methane and hydrogen sulfide were detected. The field, which lies only six hundred feet beneath the surface, extends west over a four-mile stretch from Alameda Street in downtown to Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, and was mostly drilled prior to 1915. At its height, it contained twelve hundred to fifteen hundred separate wells, most of which have long since been abandoned and are virtually invisible, though roughly three hundred are unaccounted for. The field appears to be repressurizing with oil and water, increasing a hazard already complicated by the fact that no one knows the exact location of all the wells on the property. Nevertheless, in 2004, the school district voted to resume the project and began with tearing down two new but yet unoccupied buildings. With some modifications to mitigate the methane and hydrocarbon problems, the Belmont Learning Complex (redesignated the Central Los Angeles High School #11 and Vista Hermosa Park) is expected to open in the near future.

One of the project directors, Edwin Weyrauch, pointed out that the site was typical of the LA Basin. The entire coast of California is riddled with fissures leaking petroleum-related substances to the surface. The original Belmont High School, in fact, sits directly on top of abandoned wells on the field, as do eight other schools and three hospitals in the county, all of them exposed to the same hazards as the controversial complex.

Weyrauch was fighting a losing battle against the evolution of human cognition. What we do in LA is what we do when living in any environment that is visibly large and complex. We simplify it, a process natural to our neurological makeup. Eighty percent of all the information we take in is visual—100 million bits per second stream in through our eyes, a flow our brain ruthlessly pares down to a trickle, lest it be overcome with data and crash. At a higher level of cognition, we do something similar when living in a congested environment: we automatically edit out information in order to go about the business of living. We become accustomed to certain sights, and even hazards, allowing them to surface in our consciousness only when they potentially or immediately intrude upon our functioning, an evolutionary trait left over from when a problem meant a threat to survival, not merely an inconvenience.

But then again, nature, and our engineering of it, is dangerous to one degree or another, everywhere, all the time. And it’s important to sort out continually the difference between movies about volcanoes, no matter how good the special effects, and, say, the more subtle realities of the Sixth Street Fault, which is named after the street I crossed to reach the tar pits. Around here almost everyone walks too fast to notice the “tar” oozing up through the pavement, or, seeing it, fails to consider what it means. The smell of hydrogen sulfide and my ruminations over the tar pits led me to an awareness of not just the present tense of surface asphalt, but of the depth of the ground beneath my feet and the depth of our ignorance.

IT’S NO ACCIDENT that people say Los Angeles has no nature and no past, the two being considered coterminous conditions by many Americans. Walking in Los Angeles, the city that is the most powerful nexus of cinematic process in human history, affords me an opportunity to see for myself how it is inseparable from and animated by both nature and history—and reminds me that we can and must individually reconstruct time and space no matter where we are.

By being out of sync with the ongoing present, or what we refer to as “real time,” through experiencing the past and imagining the future, we’re able to perceive where we are, what our place is. This is a project considerably complicated by Hollywood. If the Wilshire Boulevard in Volcano was recreated at seven-eighths scale, space manipulated to fit the budget and the focal length of camera lenses, that’s nothing compared to Hollywood’s compression of time, wherein events over two days are squeezed into 103 minutes, and the lava—the fictional apocalyptic geology of the basin—is channeled out to sea in a paved creekbed in order to save the Beverly Center from being consumed.

Many Hollywood movies do everything they can to match the speed of their images to our attention spans, reinforcing a trend toward more but shorter experiences of greater intensity, a temporal synergy that threatens to erase the world in front of us. It’s a method of subsuming the past and future into an endless sense of the present, which asserts that we can solve any conflict within two hours—three, tops—up to and including massive fountains of magma at the end of your street.

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William L. Fox has been a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute as well as a Lannan Marfa resident. His article in this issue is adapted from his most recent book, Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, published by Shoemaker & Hoard and used here by permission. He lives in Burbank, California.

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