Before everything – before Hollywood, architecture, food, art, culture – Los Angeles was an oil town. It has some of the most productive soil by acre out of anywhere in the country. If you look at old photos, you can see that LA was once a forest of oil derricks, which stood in clusters not only along all of the beaches, but also in inland areas like where The Grove outdoor mall is now.
If you have a keen eye, you can still spot one every now and then, but typically they are camouflaged in some way to look like a tower or a windmill or a high-rise condo or something. But – like the cell phone towers that look like sparse pine trees in the middle of the desert – they look a bit odd when you notice them. You may not know that they're drilling oil in that spot with that strange tall thing, but you know something's not right.
It's a different story in El Segundo and other Beach Cities and South Bay towns, which are full of these hulking refineries owned and operated by corporate "energy companies" who keep the industrial side of the Southland alive and well.
The best-known such refinery is probably the Chevron El Segundo facility...
...not because it maintains two preserves for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly (one by the refinery, and one in Surfridge)...
...but because without it, El Segundo wouldn't exist.
The whole city wraps around the refinery, and even in the residential areas, you can see the very tops of giant tanks peeking out from the local flora.
In fact, El Segundo was built as a company town for the Standard Oil Company...
...named "El Segundo" because, in 1911, it was the second of their refineries.
The refinery was meant to serve the petroleum industry...
...and now that Standard Oil has become Chevron, they supply over 20% of California's motor vehicle fuel.
All of this occurs across 58 different plants within the complex...
...featuring 58 furnaces...
...some of which process the crude which is pumped in from the ocean for processing.
The entire inside of the complex is top secret and tightly secured...
...and even if you make it inside, photos aren't allowed, for fear that any of their proprietary processes might be compromised, their patented technologies, stolen.
At the very basic, the incoming crude is heated to ~750º (way above its boiling point of 300º), and various different types of fuels (gas, diesel, jet) are separated out, with an emphasis on jet fuel, given their proximity to LAX (which receives 40% of its supply of jet fuel from this Chevron facility).
With all those furnaces running, and since they can't send anything out to tankage that's above boiling point, they also need coolers – lots of coolers – some of which use primarily water (1MM gallons/day, mostly from the West Basin Water Recycling Facility, since using ocean water has been outlawed).
Chevron also exports carbon dioxide to a third party for use as carbonation, instead of releasing it as a byproduct into the atmosphere (because when you burn anything, you make CO2). They have a plant that can process sulfur, an unwanted byproduct that can be turned into hydrogen sulfide gas and sulfuric acid.
They also house the world's biggest crane, which will put the new coke drums in place.
You can't see those processes from town, though. You just see tanks – many of which are from the 1940s and are still in service.
When you get inside the refinery, you can see how hilly the landscape still is, just as it was when the land was originally purchased in 1905. It feels strangely underdeveloped, despite the fact that they maintain their own fire department, full-time paramedics, and train line and tracks, and even generate their own electricity.
Situated on their primo beachfront property, as much as they try to protect the beaches from an oil spill, prevent leaks into navigable waters, avoid seepage into groundwater, and minimize hazardous waste disposal, there are still mistakes and accidents. There was a big fire which caused a power failure in January 2013, but from a public and community relations standpoint, these incidents are normally kept somewhat...understated. Still, neighbors can witness when the refinery shoots large flames into the air to burn off excess gas and pressure on a monthly basis. They wonder what exactly is being released into the atmosphere when this happens.
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