Long Beach, CA. Drilling in Disguise
On Long Beach’s Artificial Islands, Oil Comes Out and–Just as Important–Water Goes In
The THUMS Islands are a set of four artificial islands in San Pedro Bay off the coast of Long Beach, California. They were built in 1965 to tap into the East Wilmington Oil Field. The landscaping and sound walls were designed to camouflage the operation and reduce noise, and they are the only decorated oil islands in the United States.
After a 1964 court case that gave the state of California mineral rights to the area, the islands were built at an estimated cost of $22 million in 1965, the islands were operated by THUMS, a consortium named after the parent companies who bid for the island contract: Texaco, Humble Oil (now Exxon), Union Oil, Mobil Oil, and Shell Oil. The rim of the islands are made of 640,000 tons of boulders from Catalina Island, and the islands were then filled with 3.2 million cubic yards of dredged material from the bay. The islands contain significant landscaping, a waterfall, and tall structures concealing the drilling rigs, including one known as The Condo and mistaken for “a ritzy hotel” by those on land. The structures are lit in colored lights at night. The aesthetic mitigation cost $10 million at time of construction, and was overseen by theme park architect Joseph Linesch. They were described by a Los Angeles Times writer as “part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson“.
In 1975, the state of California and the city of Long Beach sued the THUMS oil companies for artificially depressing oil prices. A federal jury cleared Exxon of all charges, and the other four oil companies settled out of court for “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Since 1967, they have been known as the Astronaut Islands, having been renamed in honor of after the first four American astronauts to lose their lives. Island Grissom, Island White, and Island Chaffee were named after the Apollo 1 astronauts, and Island Freeman for the astronaut who died while piloting a T-38 Talon jet for NASA.
A peak of 148,495 barrels per day (23,608.8 m3/d) were produced in 1969. 300 million barrels (48,000,000 m3) of oil were pumped from THUMS by 1974,, the 500 millionth barrel of crude oil was pumped in 1980. By 1992, the pumping volume was 44,444 barrels (7,066.0 m3) of oil per day through the water injection method of oil recovery, producing low-grade crude oil. By April 2002, the 900 millionth barrel of oil was pumped. The pumped oil contained 20% water in 1965, and by 1994 it was 92% water.
Island Grissom is the closest to land, containing waterfalls and more sculptured screens than the other islands. The screens and decorations also serve to deter the public from swimming to the islands (trespassers are subject to arrest).
Island Freeman is the largest of the islands, at 12 acres (4.9 ha).
Oil Islands Long Beach Huell Howser Part 1