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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 12:38 GMT
LA's aged oil derricks return to life
By David Willis
BBC News, Los Angeles

There is one outside the DIY store, another by McDonald's.

Oil derrick in LA
Oil derricks are a familiar part of the LA cityscape

And Curleys, the self-proclaimed "home of chilli and giant burgers" boasts two.

They are giant oil derricks - once abandoned - which now rock back and forth majestically in Signal Hill, a small city near Long Beach to the south of Los Angeles.

Staring across a horizon dotted with the so-called "nodding donkeys", McDonald's shift leader Rick - an avuncular African American - told me he rather likes them.

"They're quieter than they used to be in the old days," he said. "And we can't complain because they were here first."

Curley's boss Jim Weisner says the rigs are good for business. People who stop by to take a picture invariably wander in for a coffee.

Who would stop to photograph an oil derrick, I wondered. "Japanese tourists," came the reply.

High oil prices

Once known as "Porcupine Hill" because the proliferation of derricks on the landscape resembled the prickles of a porcupine, Signal Hill is not alone in rekindling its economic past.

Oil derrick outside McDonalds restaurant
The derricks are a popular photo-opportunity for tourists

Across southern California roughly 4,000 structures are being brought back to life - a quarter of a century after they were abandoned because of falling petrol prices in the 1980s.

The reason for this renaissance is simple: with crude oil prices nearing an all-time high, this gas-guzzling corner of the world needs all the energy it can lay its hands on.

Currently, California buys in about half a million barrels of oil a day in order to meet its energy needs.

Giving old rigs a new lease of life could - according to Professor Iraj Ershagi, director of the petroleum engineering programme at the University of Southern California - eventually make the state self-sufficient, although investment would be required to boost production at the old rigs.

"If you can revitalise all the old oil fields and improve the technology to make them more efficient we could one day be in a position where we don't need to import oil," he told me.

Disguised derricks

According to maps of abandoned wells, large chunks of Los Angeles and neighbouring Orange County sit atop oil reserves.

Woman filling car with petrol outside a derrick
Derricks are back in use because of rising prices at the pumps

Not all are as conspicuous as the ones in Signal Hill.

Like many of its citizens the derricks in Beverly Hills have been cosmetically decorated - disguised in this case to blend in with their surroundings. In the waters off Long Beach, "rigs have disguised themselves as tropical islands with 45-foot waterfalls, banana trees, hibiscus and carved tikis", according to the Los Angeles Times.

Others masquerade as a lighthouse and an office building.

Even though they have earned the approval of many local traders, to some the Signal Hill derricks represent a blot on the landscape.

Vivian Munson of the Signal Hill city council told me she thought they made the place look untidy and were impeding the town's development.

But on one point everyone agrees: they are here to stay.

There was a time when LA was better known for its oil wells than its movies: in the words of one expert, they ruined a perfectly good oil field by building a city on top of it.

And with property prices falling, some believe the day may come when people tear down houses in Hollywood in order to drill for oil.

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