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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 17, 2006

In Long Beach, oil industry is an art form

By Deborah Schoch
Los Angeles Times

LONG BEACH, Calif. Oil company manager Bill McFarland, in hard hat and goggles, is accustomed to taking industry executives on tours of his firm's sprawling expanse of oil rigs: the tanks, the pipelines.

But on this warm summer day, he has all the aplomb of a seasoned museum docent. "Here," he says as he points to the sights, "the sculptures, the waterfall." His venue is a man-made island, with lush landscaping and groves of palm trees. It is one of four well-disguised drilling platforms that produce 32,000 barrels of oil a day just off downtown Long Beach.

The islands debuted this month in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, as significant works of art. One historian called them prime examples of the "aesthetic mitigation of technology," a mid-20th century design trend that camouflaged or softened industrial structures.

The original design drawings and photographs of the islands have been painstakingly framed, annotated and displayed at the University Art Museum at California State University-Long Beach, in an exhibit called "Fantasy Islands: Landscaping Long Beach's Oil Platforms," which runs through Oct. 15.

It was organized by architectural historian Kurt G.F. Helfrich. He says the islands capture a pivotal moment in mid-20th century America as society began to question technology but not reject it altogether, as it would when the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill helped to spawn the environmental movement.

Designed by prominent theme-park architect Joseph H. Linesch, the island landmarks are part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson. But what they really are 42 acres of oil fields, with 175-foot-high drilling towers and 1,100 wells penetrating a vast underground oil field is virtually invisible from shore.

Most visitors and even many Long Beach residents think of them as bona-fide islands. At night, they glow with orange and yellow lights like offshore casinos or tropical resorts.

"They've withstood the test of time because people don't know what they are," said Helfrich, a curator at the University of California-Santa Barbara art museum that owns the collection of Linesch's work. "There's a playfulness about them."

In the early 1960s, Long Beach residents opposed unsightly oil derricks marring their harbor, so a consortium of oil companies spent $10 million to mask them to quell the controversy.

The investment would be worth it. Far beneath the city lay more than a billion barrels of oil in the Wilmington Oil Field, then the fourth-largest field in the continental United States. In 1965, the city chose five companies to recover the oil: Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell, working together as Thums Long Beach Co., an acronym of company names. The company is now an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary.

Linesch oversaw the building of four 10-acre island pads containing derricks pumping 180 underground wells, two of them less than 2,000 feet from shore.

Barges hauled in heaps of Catalina Island rock to create four giant rims to be filled with sand and earth from the ocean floor. They were planted with hundreds of palms, oleanders, sandalwood, figs and acacias.

Sculptor Herbert J. Goldman designed the curving panels that hide the oil equipment.

Behind the oleander and sandalwood, Thums has pumped 930 million barrels of oil, with an estimated 130 million barrels still to be removed. In more than 40 years, the operation has not experienced a single pipeline leak, said McFarland, human resources manager for Thums.

When the wells dry up in 30 to 40 years, the islands will revert to city control.

Perhaps, said Chris Garner, director of the city-owned gas utility, one island could become a theme park like Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland.