Refined and Crude: Union Oil Bulletin, January 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Temple family was involved in the greater Los Angeles oil industry during very different periods of its history, with F.P.F. Temple among the region’s first producers, albeit on a modest scale, during the first half of the 1870s and his son, Walter, involved in oil prospecting from the late 1910s to about 1930, when the industry was at a level and scale of sophistication far beyond what could have been envisioned in the earlier era.

Among the many oil-related artifacts in the Homestead’s collection are issues of oil company magazines, including tonight’s featured object: the January 1927 edition of the Union Oil Bulletin, issued by the Union Oil Company of California, founded in the mid-1880s in Santa Paula in Ventura County. Later known as Unocal, the firm rapidly rose to regional prominence in the field, though Walter Temple’s lease in Montebello was with its competitor, Standard Oil Company of California.

These magazines are often filled with very interesting and informative material about the industry and this one is certainly no exception, including the striking cover art by Thomas H. McKay of a Spanish galleon confidently sailing in the light of sunrise bearing the new year on one of its mainsails, while the back cover shows a listing 1926 vessel crawling off towards the sunset.

Incidentally, it does not escape notice that the vivid orange and yellow sunrise and sunset is evocative of what has been controversial recently in artwork at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus—that is, the imagery could be seen as redolent of the Imperial Japanese battle flag’s “Rising Sun” that has such painful associations for Asian nations that were brutally conquered and controlled by Japan during the early 20th century.

In any case, the first article in the magazine is “The Year in Review,” summarizing what was “an outstanding [year] for the company in many respects” when it came to operations during 1926. There was a significant growth in oil property development “which will be reflected in future years,” as well as a more “economic extraction of oil through the utilization of more efficint methods and equipment.” One such example was “gas lifting,” which allowed for the preservation of what was formerly called “lost oil” and which “has caused a revision in the production figures of proven and developed fields.”

There was also a significant improvement in refining techniques, such as the development of the Edeleanu process to make a better form of kerosene from crude asphalt, while large “Cross cracking units” were put into place at the Los Angeles refinery—the cracking process was discussed in more detail subsequently, as noted below. Additionally, Union expanded its marketing operations in Alaska, western Canada and Mexico and promoted its “new super-fuel” called “Union Ethyl Gasoline,” which included the removal of “carbon knock” in engines, more power and other results. It was noted that “the great sales volume of this new gasoline testifies to its warm response by Western motorists.”

Finally, the firm heralded “four lines of reserve in production” as 1927 dawned, including “large parcels of proven oil in land in the Los Angeles basin” and in the Santa Maria area of northern Santa Barbara County, as well as in Colorado and Wyoming, while shale in the former was the largest in area in the nation outside of those owned by the federal government.

Finally, there was the “probably largest and most important reserve . . . established three months ago when the company acquired approximately 900,000 acres of potential oil lands in Venezuela.” As concerns mounted about the long-term availability of petroleum within the United States, more aggressive acquisition of oil-bearing lands elsewhere developed. This would lead to major concerns about American incursions into other countries and Venezuela was certainly no exception. Given the perilous situation today in that once-wealthy oil producing nation, this history is notable.

With regard to the “Production of ‘Cracked’ Gasoline,” the article on this subject by Leland L. Rebber, the superintendent of this area at the Los Angeles refinery, situated in Wilmington near the Port of Los Angeles, is very technical and detailed, but the gist is that improvements in the extraction of crude allowed, because of the enormous growing demand for gasoline, for developing “cracked” gasoline. Rebber explained that, in the past, “a large quantity of gasoline [was] purposely pumped to a waste sump and burned,” because the desired product was kerosene. With the onset of modern internal combustion engines and the use of gasoline as the fuel this all changed, but surging demand led to a difficulty with available supply until this was “made possible through application of the art of ‘Cracking.'”

The process involved meant that “conditions of heat must be maintained so that a high recovery of desirable liquid constituents of low boiling range is possible, yet with the minimum yield of the undesriable fixed carbon and gas.” Rebber used the analogy of breaking a massive rock slab into usable pieces with “well timed and properly placed medium hard blows” so that the slab yielded “some fine and some sizeable pieces.” With the cracking proces, the goal was “a middle course, disscoating sufficiently to give a reasonable yield of gasoline, yet not so energetically [shattering the slab, with the analogy] as to produce large quantities of the end products, gas and coke.”

The overall result, after much technical discussion of processes, meant that “all grades of petroleum can now be cracked and ultimate yields of gasoline obtained ranging from 40 to 70% of the original oil” and, while naturally derived gasoline, for the 1925 year, amounted to a majority of the 11 billion gallons refined in the country, up to 30% of the total output came from cracking. It was expected that the proportion of the latter would continue to rise as demand increased and yields of crude lessened, though improved drilling, including with harder bits on the drills, made a huge difference within several years.

An odd little fairy tale by “B.Z.” called “Little Red Riding Good and the Wicked King Knock was an attempt to picturesquely promote the importance of the Ethyl brand of gasoline mentioned in the opening summary. The people of the land of Motoria, of course known as Motorists,” lived next to the Land of Deto, whose people, the Dets, “were ruled by a wicked old tyrant—King Knock” who, along with his sidekick, C. Arbon (get it?) were determined to keep the Motorists from advancing and progressing and were assisted by Miss Understanding. The Motorists, however, were sent a queen from the east named Ethyl and who “wore a becoming little red dress,” hence her nickname.

This monarch called for an assembly of her people and the queen was assisted by Tetra, the warrior, and Ethyl Dibromide [ethylene dibromide was used as a gasoline additive for leaded gas and a fumigant, but, is highly toxic—with the onset of unleaded gasoline years later, it was discontinued in the industry, though it remains for other purposes including treating pests in felled logs of wood and in controlling moths in beehives, as well as used as an intermediate for waxes, dyes, gums and resins.) Tetra was appointed at this conclave to lead an attack against King Knock and the Dets, “but strange to say the wicked old King vanished completely into thin air at his approach” as did the entire Deto nation (ha!) “so that now the two countries are under the domain of the beautiful and good Ethyl, and the wicked old King Knock has been long forgotten.”

“Thrills in the Oil Fields,” by field operations manager F.F. Hill, focuses on remarkble and dangerous events at the Santa Fe Springs oil field, one of the greatest producers in the greater Los Angeles area. In 1917, Meyer well #3, which inaugurated the field, was a gusher for a few hours when it was put into production, but water got in and, after that was cleaned out, the well never issued more than a few hundred barrels a day, but was a long-time producer, with nearly 150,000 barrels over its life, which ended with its recent abandonment.

Another example at that field was the Union’s Alexander #1, which at just over 2,000 feet of drilling, was subject to “a terrific gas blow-out” with a massive mud column bursting through the derrick, which a worker narrowly avoided as he “landed unhurt in a sumphole.” Some 900 feet of six-inch pipe landed some 700 feet away and “the bit and drill collar was completely imbedded in the ground.” After just three minutes “the derrick was completely demolished and a huge crater formed” as the well blew for about a month.

Similar situations happened at the Howard and Bell leases, so that Union “was unfortunate in having the bulk of the blow-outs at Santa Fe Springs,” though it evaded such disasters at its Dominguez and Rosecrans fields where “some of the biggest wells [were brought in by the company] without any loss through fire, blow-outs, or other causes.” Hill concluded his essay with the observation that “the oil driller is like the fellow who lives in a glass house, he never knows when his turn may come.”

Other main articles concerned the history of light before electricity, the Bohemian Highway between Sausalito in Marin County, north of San Francisco (before the famous Golden Gate Bridge was completed about a decade later) and Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, and the famous Carlsbad Cavern of southern New Mexico, located near Union property. There were also features like “News of the Month,” including the election to the board of directors of W.L. Stewart, Jr., son of the company’s president and grandson of its founder, Lyman Stewart; the payment of a quarterly dividend of fifty cents a share; information on production for November and December; and more, and “Sports,” covering golf, basketball and bowling news for teams fielded by the company.

The “Refined and Crude” section with its humor, or attempts thereof, included some choice examples, such as a waiter asking a customer how his or her eggs were to be cooked, to which the response was whether there was any difference in price. Told no, the customer cracked “then cook ’em with a nice slice of ham.” A tourist in Scotland exclaimed after a long hike “brother! We’ve climed to the top of this mountains to see the view and we’ve forgotten the glasses,” to which the guide rejoined “Och! never mind, there’s nobody aboot. We can just drink oot o’ the bottle.” Finally, one man said to another, “there are no back-seat drivers in my family,” to which came the answer, “you’re lucky,” leading the first to reply, “yep. She rides on the front seat.”

Another regular feature is the reprinting of California oil production statistics for two months before the publication date, in this case November 1926. The field with the biggest yield was Long Beach at over 2,865,000 barrels, with the Midway-Sunset in the lower San Joaquin just behind at 2,734,000 and Huntington Beach a close third at just shy of 2,260,000 barrels. Ventura Avenue came in a fourth with 1,700,000 and it is notable that Walter Temple had oil investments in Long Beach (Signal Hill), Huntington Beach and Ventura Avenue at various points in his career in the industry, though as a small player among the big firms like Standard, Union, and others, he did not experience anywhere near the success of these larger companies. Montebello, however, was a short-lived major producing field and yielded just under 525,000 barrels for the month, twelfth of the twenty-seven on the list.

Total production was a little over 19 million barrels, an increase of more than 200,000 from October, while the daily average was about 2,500 barrels a day more in aggregate from a year prior. With respect to stocks of oil, heavy crude abvout 20 degrees totaled 88.6 million barrels, a slight increase from October and about 3 million higher than a year before; refinable crude at 20 degrees or lighter, was at 30.2 million barrels, a slight drop from the prior month and over 30% lower than November 1925; gasoline was at 11.2 million barrels, close to a 20% increase from October and a little more than that from the previous year; and naphtha distillages were at 3.8 million barrels, a decline of about 280,000 from October, but a good 40% or so lower from that time in 1925. Overall stock was down 11 million barrels year-to-year.

Magazines like Standard Oil Bulletin and Union Oil Bulletin can be very useful in understanding how the oil industry developed during the last decades of the Homestead’s interpretive period, with the former launched in 1913 and the latter just under a decade later. As we see the active prospecting for petroleum fading away from our regional landscape, what was once a major part of a highly diversified economy increasingly becomes a memory recalled through history.

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