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The California Petroleum Co. - the People

Learn about the history of oil production in Southern California and its effect on the rest of the world.

Oil Transfer at California Petroleum Terminal
Oil Transfer at California
Petroleum Terminal

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The oil production location known as the Los Angeles Basin encompasses the region of Southern California surrounding the City of Los Angeles. The basin is approximately 22 miles wide and 42 miles long and sits within the southern portion of Los Angeles County and the northwestern portion of Orange County. The region is bounded by the Santa Ana Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. Although not the first to be discovered in California (that distinction goes to a well drilled in 1865 on the northern California coast near present day Petrolia), the oil fields of the Los Angeles Basin played a significant role in California's petroleum industry during the first two decades of the 20th century. California has historically been a key player in the industry and led the nation in oil production for many years during the first four decades of the 20th century.

View of Berths 150-151 (1928)
View of Berths 150-152 (1928)

Oil drilling began in the Los Angeles Basin prior to the turn of the century. As early as 1909, the greater Los Angeles area was considered a major refining center. The refining process of crude oil allowed for its conversion into many different types of usable products, such as kerosene, grease, lubricating oils, and asphalt. The constant growth of Southern California led to an ever increasing need for these products.

Two overriding factors helped increase the desirability of crude oil from California following the turn of the century. The first was the fact that many railroads on the west coast, increasingly followed by other railroads nationwide, converted their fuel from coal (largely imported) to the cheaper, locally obtainable, and more plentiful oil. This conversion also took place on many ocean-going vessels. The second factor driving the search for crude was the explosion of automobile use during the 1920s. Prior to the 1920s, gasoline was considered a useless byproduct of the refineries and deemed an extreme nuisance that was difficult to dispose of. However, in the new age of the internal combustion engine, gasoline quickly became the most important ingredient in a barrel of oil.

View of Wharf at Berth 150-151 (1938)
View of wharf at Berths 150-151

In 1919, about two-thirds of California's oil came from the Lower San Joaquin Valley, and the major refineries were concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area. However, in the 1920s, the predominance of all aspects of the oil industry passed to the Los Angeles region. In 1923, the production of oil from Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, and Huntington Beach, combined with the remaining smaller pools of the Los Angeles Basin, accounted for 20% of the world's total production of crude. Only the State of Oklahoma rivaled California in terms of total production numbers at the time.