Hansen: Nostalgic stain of oil horses fades slowly


For something so mechanically simple, the pumpjack is called many things.

It’s an oil horse, donkey pumper, rocking horse, pumping unit, horsehead pump, thirsty bird, beam pump, gasshopper pump, Big Texan or nodding donkey.

Some people call it evil.

If you grew up in Southern California, the ubiquitous pumps that mysteriously pulled oil from the ground were quite familiar sights.

By the fifth grade, you probably learned there was a large oil field under the region because of the dinosaurs. You went on field trips to the La Brea Tar Pits.


Somehow it was all connected: life, death and oil.

So when you got tarballs on your feet at the beach, you blamed the pumps or the oil platforms off the coast because it was hard to blame the dinosaurs.

At that age, you just accepted things.

Now, however, there are electric cars, and what is acceptable has changed. What was once viewed as nostalgia is now symbolic of something more sinister.

With raging fracking debates and real-life oil spills like the recent one in Santa Barbara, people are again asking the question: Why are the pumps still around?

The simple answer is they are still pumping oil. More than 2,300 pumps dot Orange County, much as they did 100 years ago, according to state records. During oil’s heyday, about 33,000 oil pumps were operating in Southern California. The number has dwindled to just over 5,000. However, the state still receives nearly $6 billion in annual oil-related tax revenue and is ranked third in the nation in crude-oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The largest oil fields in Orange County sit underneath the cities of Brea, Yorba Linda, Seal Beach, Newport Beach and, of course, Huntington Beach, which is rich in oil history.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then to still see three working pumps at the Huntington Beach Civic Center on Main Street, home to City Hall and other city services.

The pumps are scattered in a large parking lot where electric cars glide in under solar roofs. Like relics of the past, the pumps operate behind barbed wire fences as if they need protection.

Years ago, oil marketeers promoted the “silent” model pumps in an effort to quell complaints about noise.

But one of these rusted pumps, perhaps because of its age, squeaks as it bobs up and down. It’s a long squeak, slow and rhythmic — almost pensive.

Senior citizen apartments are nearby, but apparently the residents don’t mind.

The civic center parking lot is decorated with fake beach pylons with metal pelicans on top. In fact, the pelicans “fly” right next to the oil pumps.

The birds are painted a burnt red, even though I’ve never seen a red pelican. Their beaks are curved and open, forming a cartoonish smile. Perhaps after 30 million years of existence, they’ve seen it all and are now amused.

When you get near the pumps, you can smell the oil, as you would in any old-school auto repair shop — the kind with big drums of oil in the corner, next to dirty rags and festive calendars.

If you look closely, you can see oil seeping from the pipes. There are no major leaks, but time has a way of proving engineering wrong.

It’s then that I notice a couple walking with a baby stroller along the adjacent sidewalk. I ask them if they’ve lived here long.

“All my life,” says Josh Davis, 35.

We talk about growing up with oil. He points across the street to Huntington Beach High, where he went to school.

“You know the mascot is the Oilers,” he says, shaking his head.

He appreciates how times have changed.

“Because we grew up with the oil derricks, you don’t really notice them,” he said. “But it’s a crutch. Sooner or later, you have to face it. We have to focus on renewable energy, because the longer we wait, the more painful it’s going to be.”

Davis rolls off with his baby and wife to the corner Starbucks.

I walk back to the pump. It continues to bob and squeak, bob and squeak.

And then it stops. For no apparent reason, the pumps will stop periodically as if to rest — beleaguered, perhaps.

I look again at the stained black ground, decades of small spills that never really vanish. I’m reminded of crime movies where the shootout inevitably takes place in ominous oil fields at sunset with the rigs in silhouette. And when the victims die and fall to the ground, they are left like dinosaurs.

Just then, the pump starts back up and I jump a little. The hulking horse head of the pump is once again bobbing slowly, relentless and seemingly carefree.

The pelican is still smiling too, perhaps happy that he’s painted red and not black.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at