Drilling for Black Gold with the Summary of Operations, California Oil Fields, January 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When it comes to fossil fuel production and consumption, we are in a very different environment than we were a century ago and tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection reflects that as the January 1921 issue of the Summary of Operations, California Oil Fields, issued by the California State Mining Bureau’s State Oil and Gas Supervisor as a monthly “chapter” in his sixth annual report, celebrated that remarkable growth of petroleum development in the Golden State since the beginning of the 20th century.

Roy E. Collom, the aforementioned supervisor, kept his report professional, but there was definitely a celebratory element to his “California Petroleum in 1900 and 1920.” A native of Colorado, Collom attended the Colorado School of Mines before transferring to Stanford University, where he earned his degree in geology and mining in 1906. He worked as a petroleum engineer in California fields before joining the newly created State Mining Bureau’s Department of Oil and Gas in 1915.

Collom soon was made a deputy oil and gas supervisor, working out of Santa Maria in Ventura County and then transferred to bureau headquarters at San Francisco and then left in 1919 to work for the federal Bureau of Mines, but returned to California to assume his new job in time for this issue of the summary of operations to be published with his review of the prodigious leap in oil production over the prior twenty years.

He began by noting that “in the closing months of 1920, California resumed the leadership of petroleum producing states,” though he didn’t state which state was previously the biggest producer—perhaps it was Texas. In any case, Collom noted that the year’s yield of nearly 106 million barrels was greater than in any past year and he added that it “confirms the belief of the pioneers of twenty years ago that Califoinria woild eventually furnish fuel and power to all countries bordering the Pacific.”

In that final year of the Teens, production leapt by more than 4.5 million barrels from the previous year and this “was absorbed with over 100,000,000 other barrels, 8,000,000 barrels of which were drawn from storage,” with crude prices jumping twice. The net resut was that “the requirements of the California petroleum industry,” exclusive of imported gasoline and crude, including from Mexico, was about 114 million barrels, due to growth in drilling in both geologically proven and “wild cat,” or unproven, areas and increased production in all oil fields.

Collom noted that, in 1900, the state was just realizing the effects of the oil boom in the Kern County region, “which in a single year almost doubed the production of the state,” but, even then, total yields for that year were about 4.3 million barrels, less than the above-noted growth for 1920 over the past year. He added that there was, two decades before, a “limited market and uses for petroleum and its products,” so the presence of 4 million barrels in 1900 “caused the dark clouds of overproduction to show on the normal price horizon.”

In the Kern River and Coalinga areas of the Central Valley, the crude was of a low gravity and this “started California on the long trail of low prices which obtained while the state was extending its markets, learning new uses for its oils, and undergoing readjustments incident to moving into a position as premier among oil producing regions ot the world.”

In 1921, however, the Golden State did not produce and market fuel crude, but was “a producer, refiner and marketer of ptroleum products” and, he continued, “oil men believe that eventually every barrel of oil produced in the state will be run through refineries” and no crude would be utilized as fuel. This meant that “the full value of a barrel of crude oil will be realized.”

In the last year of the 19th century, Collom observed, California produced 1/15th of the petroleum in the nation and about 4% of the world’s total, but, in 1920, it yielded a quarter of American production and 20% of the world’s yields. This stunning statistic was followed by the statement that, since 1875, when the first major well, that of Star Oil in modern Santa Clarita, was brought in (it was actually in 1876), the state’s total production was almost 1.35 billion barrels with a value of just about $1 billion.

Collom continued that “the geographic distribution of petroleum producing areas in California has not changed greatly during the past twenty years” and that, while new fields wer opened thanks to detailed study and improved prospecting methods, “no new counties have been added,” though “the influences and balances of production have shifted considerably.”

A table showed that Los Angeles County produced 40% of the state’s oil yields in 1900, generating well over 1.7 million barrels, with Kern County coming in at not quite 920,000 barrels of about 21%, Fresno at just below 550,000 barrels of about 1/8th of the total, and Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange contributing as much combined as Kern.

Two decades on, Kern was yielding almost half of the state’s total, at some 52 million barrels. Orange County was generating just under 15% at 15.8 million barrels with Fresno just a few hundred thousand barrels behind that. Los Angeles County was fourth with a total of 14.2 million barrels, totaling 13.4% of the state yield. Even though Santa Barbara production was up enormously, from 184,000 to nearly 6 million barrels, its percentage was less than one percent different, while Ventura, which approached a five-fold increase saw its percentage plummet from over 10 to about 2%.

Collom’s conclusion was:

Such is the magnitude of Caliornia’s present day development. The petroleum industry itself, the people of California, and the inhabitants of lands bordering upon the Pacific, depend vitally upon the economic development and conservation of the resource.

Collom also contributed a more technical piece on the spacing of wells and the devlopment of town lot drilling sites, based on the fact that the newly opened Huntington Beach field created a chalenge because of its existing platting with smaller lots in town. He observed, for example, that oil prospectors drilled in a pool in such a way that “each well shall have more or less exclusive acces to a certain reservoir area.”

So, at Kern River a well was on a site of nearly 3 1/2 acres on average, while at the McKittrick field the average was about five acres. Collom’s concern was that town lot prospecting might lead to a situation in which “unscrupulous promoters of stock schemes prevent realization of legitimate endeavors by engaging in intensive town-lot drilling with no other idea than to get a sufficient initial production to boost the selling price of stocks.”

Some interesting statistical tables show the output of refineries in the country for November 1920, showing that California refined some 7 million barrels of crude oil, behind Texas and Louisiana at over 10.7 million and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore at just under 9.6 million. For gasoline, though the Golden State’s total of just under 45 million gallons was outpaced by the output of several midwestern states (Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and western Ohio) at over 62 million, Oklahoma and Kansas at more than 83 million, the east coast metropolises at above 104 million and Texas and Louisiana at just north of 106 million.

The Golden State did better with gas and fuel with some 192 million gallons refined, placing it third behind the three east coast cities and their 220 million level and Texas and Louisiana and their top-showing of not quite 225 million. With miscellaneous products, California generated not quite 30 million gallons, trailing Texas and Louisiana’s 36 million, while Colorado and Wyoming were just under 26.5 million.

Across the board, production for the several types of petroleum products showed mostly dramatic increases in daily averages from the previous two years. So, crude refining moved from about 914,000 barrels in November 1918, when World War I came to an end to above 1,073,000 a year later, and then more than 1,315,000 for the current year. Gasoline refining grew from 10.4 million gallons in 1918, to 11.3 the following year, and nearly 15.1 million in 1920. Gas and fuel similarly moved higher with totals of 20.1 to 22.1 to 27.4 million gallons over the three-year period.

As for stocks at hand at refineries, California trailed almost all other areas of the country in nearly every category. Its inventory of crude was well below 1.5 million barrels, while Texas and Louisiana had more than 9.5, the east coast had over 4.4 million, Oklahoma and Kansas counted some 2.6 million and the midwestern states were slightly higher than the Golden State. Gasoline stocks were at 25.5 million gallons, but this was lower than in Colorado and Wyoming (26 million) and far behind almost all others most of which were as low as 52.4 million and as high as 93.4 million—this latter being in Texas and Louisiana.

Only in gas and fuel supplies did California have a large amount relative to other regions, with nearly 139 million gallons, though this was still slightly under Oklahoma and Kansas (almost 146 million) and the east coast cities (not quite 150 million), while Teas and Louisiana held close to 285 million. The Golden State did have more than 106 million gallons of miscellaneous petroleum products in its refineris, second to Texas and Louisiana and their 190 million level.

Los Angeles Express, 27 January 1921.

Another telling table is that for gasoline production and inventory on hand monthly during 1919 and 1920 and it is notable that in January 1919, the state yielded over 34.3 million gallons with stocks at nearly 36 mllion. While production remained geneally consistent through the year, rising as high as 39.3 million in July, stocks dropped by well over half, from almost 35.6 million in January to just north of 15.5 million in December. This was in distinction to the country generally, where output and stocks both climbed.

For 1920, production in the Golden State shot up dramatically, from not quite 33 million gallons in January to nearly 47 million in August and only a slight drop to near 45 million in November. Stocks, however, went up, as well, from a low of 15.6 million gallons at the start of the year to a high of well above 25 million gallons by November. Yet, nationally, production ballooned considerably from almost 37 million gallons to north of 452 million during the eleven month period, while stocks dropped a great deal, starting at just about 516 million in January, climbing to over 643 million by April and dropping as low as 288 million by September before a climb to 355 million in November.

Express, 17 March 1921.

Most of the publication, as per usual, was dedicated to reports on specific wells in the state’s many fields. Amng the busiest were Huntington Beach (again, a new area of develoment), Richfield (Yorba Linda/Placentia), Elk Hills (west of Bakersfield), Kern River (northeast of that town), Midway and Sunset (near Elk Hills), and Coalinga (in the west-centralpart of the central alley).

At Montebello, where the Temple family was the very fortunate beneficiary of several gushers drilled by Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, starting in summer 1917, the field was not particularly large or substantial, with yields rapidly declining after the turn of the Twenties. Yet, the report did note that Temple well #13 had an approval from the state for drilling and that it was estimated that oil-bearing sands were expected at about 1750 feet. The idea was to drill to an initial oil formation just above that, though there was a recommendation to continue below that with the blessing of the department.

Whittier News, 28 April 1921.

In fact, this well wound up being another major producer and added to the Temples’ fabulous run at Montebello, not to mention their bank account, with it brought into production in April, though it was apparently one of the last of the significant gushers among the roughly two dozen wells drilled by Standard on the 60-acre lease.

This report is one of many objects in the Homestead’s holdings that help us to interpret the oil industry in greater Los Angeles through the Roaring Twenties, but a century later, conditions surrounding fossil fuel production are entirely different given the realities and results of climate change and oil fields in our region are gradually shutting down and being developed for other uses.

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