Urban Crude

Documenting the metropolitan petroscape of Los Angeles.


Founded in 1994 by Matthew Coolidge, the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation researches and documents “how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.” This is a notably understated description for a growing set of trans-disciplinary initiatives of extraordinary scope. CLUI’s exploratory reach has encompassed the landscapes of emergency-response, traffic control and “post consumption” in Los Angeles; the VORs of Texas, or the “Very high frequency Omnidirectional Range” antennas used by civil and military aviation; the “best dead mall in America” (the Dixie Square, in Harvey, Illinois, abandoned two decades ago); Ultima Thule, or the northernmost U.S. Air Force outpost, located in Greenland, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle; and Antarctica 1, the first highway on the continent, a 2.5-mile gravel-paved route through McMurdo Station. Perhaps most remarkable of all is CLUI’s Land Use Database, with its detailed and idiosyncratic surveys of all 50 states. Click on Nevada, for example, and the listings range from the defense infrastructure of the pax americana (Area 51; the Bravo Bombing Ranges, the Nevada Test Site) to landmarks of earth art (Michael Heizer’s Double Negative) to mega-scale monuments of hydroelectricity (Hoover Dam).

CLUI has recently trained its investigative sights on a subject of keen interest to urbanists and environmentalists: the urban and natural spaces that for much of the past century have been shaped and misshaped by the extraction, processing and transportation of oil. Last winter and spring two exhibitions photo-documented pieces of this petroscape: Trans-Alaska Pipeline tracked the 800-mile journey of the four-foot-diameter pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to its southern terminus at the port of Valdez; Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry catalogued the transformations wrought on the land and offshore by the petrochemical industry centered in Houston.

Los Angeles is the most active urban oil field, hidden and camouflaged, pulling oil out from under our feet.

The center’s latest oil-related exhibition, which opened in late October at its Culver City space, is Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin. Urban Crude describes, in photographs and texts, the past and present of the 41 active oil fields of metropolitan Los Angeles, from which about 28 million barrels are extracted annually (down from the peak of 133 million barrels, in 1969). The exhibition pays particular attention to the myriad efforts to camouflage the petro-infrastructure — to suppress awareness of the fact that about 5,000 oil wells remain active in the midst of the second most populous city in the United States.

Or as we learn from the exhibit texts: “Los Angeles is an active urban oil field, where the industry operates in cracks, corners, and edges, hidden behind fences, and camouflaged into architecture, pulling oil out from under our feet. . . . Los Angeles is an active laboratory for how to extract oil from a developed city, something more likely to occur as the world urbanizes. Generally considered unsightly, dirty, and smelly, the oil industry has had to develop defenses against the rising value of the land and the encroachment of housing and retail. Sound muffling technology, visual barriers, and the concentration of wells into smaller areas, using directional drilling techniques to access fields through diagonal and horizontal wells, are all technologies developed here.”

Center for Land Use Interpretation, “Urban Crude,” Places Journal, November 2009. Accessed 02 Dec 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/091114

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