Millions of years ago, the Pacific Ocean covered the span of shallow land today known as the Los Angeles Basin. Sediments of phyto- and zooplankton accumulated in warm and stagnant water more than two kilometres deep. Successive geologic eras preserved and compressed these sediments until they were transformed into fluid hydrocarbons, which seeped their way into permeable conduits, occasionally finding the surface. During the Pleistocene, mammoths, giant sloths, and sabre-toothed tigers were caught and fossilized in the seeps of natural asphalt that came to be known as the La Brea Tar Pits. The Tongva and Chumash peoples used the asphalt that was expressed from the ground to waterproof canoes and baskets, and make casts for broken bones. In 1769, a friar accompanying a Spanish expedition wrote of “large marshes of a certain substance like pitch,” which “would serve to caulk many ships.”

What took millions of years of exquisite natural phenomena to create took a little more than a century to plunder. The first oil well in Los Angeles was dug, by hand, in the neighborhood now known as Echo Park, by two prospectors, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, in 1892. Doheny, who later inspired characters in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”—and also in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” loosely based on the Sinclair novel—was in his mid-thirties and nearly broke when he arrived in California, and, according to legend, saw a wagon carting a sticky, black pitch that locals sometimes used as fuel. He traced the substance back to its source and, with Canfield’s help, leased a plot of land where it was known to ooze out of the ground. After several weeks of digging, they struck the Los Angeles City Oil Field, a reservoir of crude beneath a strip of land that stretches from present-day Koreatown to Dodger Stadium. Within ten years, hundreds of wells had been dug along its length. A bigger oil boom followed in the nineteen-twenties, after reserves were discovered in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, and Inglewood. These petroleum reservoirs, and dozens of others, made L.A. the Saudi Arabia of the period. Back then, the city produced as much as a quarter of the world’s oil supply.

There are now sixty-eight named oil fields within the four-hundred-and-fifty-square-mile area of the Los Angeles Basin, according to the United States Geological Survey. Ten of these fields are considered giants, containing more than a billion barrels of oil. In the twenties, many of the oil fields were chaotic thickets of derricks, surrounded by farmland. But as the population of the city increased, in part because of the oil boom, urban housing filled the spaces in between. Development of oil fields was haphazard and often makeshift, governed by so-called laws of capture that discouraged centralized infrastructure. Attempts to zone the oil industry in the thirties, to protect real-estate values, were largely suspended during the Second World War, when even the shoreline of Venice Beach—today home to the Los Angeles offices of Google—was lined with oil wells that regularly erupted into spills, blowouts, and explosions. As recently as 1971, the architecture critic Reyner Banham described the area as “a long uncertain strip of frame houses of varying ages, vacant lots, oil-pumps, and sad gravel scrub.”

A process known as aesthetic mitigation was undertaken by several oil companies in the nineteen-sixties. The Cardiff Tower, an oil well opened, in 1966, in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, mimics the architecture of a synagogue. The Packard Well Site, which opened on Genesee Avenue, in 1967, was disguised to look like an office building on the outside and had a viewing gallery, open to the public, on the inside. The Beverly Center mall curves to skirt a drill site tapping an oil field in Beverly Hills. Off the shore of Long Beach are the THUMS Islands, man-made drill sites designed to look like a resort when viewed from land. (Their name is an acronym for Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil, and Shell, the companies that built them.) In 2000, a derrick that had dominated the campus of Beverly Hills High School for decades was hidden beneath a soundproof shed, clad in vinyl siding that was painted with flowers by hospitalized children, and renamed the Tower of Hope. The industry took less care in working-class and predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, including with sites adjacent to wealthier Black enclaves such as West Adams and Baldwin Hills. The generators installed there were diesel-powered instead of electric, and pumpjacks nodded in plain sight.

The End of Oil Drilling in L.A.

Still, one could argue that all of Los Angeles is a triumph of aesthetic mitigation: the city, founded on the most polluting of industries—with what the U.S.G.S. refers to, dryly, in one report, as “famously high local demand for refined petroleum products”—has a long tradition of hiding its environmentally destructive ontology in winter sunshine and personal wellness. Compared with the city’s other existential threats—earthquakes, wildfires, water shortages—the hazards of building a densely populated city over a reservoir of heavily mined hydrocarbons are less discussed, despite the not infrequent leaks, explosions, and spills. The occasional inundation of a basement with crude oil tends to be treated as a neighborhood affair.

Lately, though, the tolerance of Angelenos for the oil wells next door has waned. Climate change has made the presence of fossil-fuel extraction in the middle of America’s second-largest city seem increasingly preposterous, even if residents remain among the country’s most petroleum-dependent consumers. American environmentalism has changed, too, focussing somewhat less on the conservation of wilderness and more on combatting environmental racism in urban areas. The oil in Los Angeles County that was relatively easy to extract is gone now. Since the eighties, when production peaked, multinational fossil-fuel companies have largely left; today, smaller operators dig up what remains using more resource-intensive and polluting methods, such as acidization and hydraulic fracturing. In recent years, several of the city’s best-known oil wells, including the Tower of Hope and the fake office building on Genesee Avenue, have closed.

In September, after years of grassroots lobbying, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to ban new drilling and phase out existing wells in the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County. The City of Los Angeles passed a similar motion in January. If these laws survive anticipated legal challenges, they will be followed by studies to confirm that the oil companies have got their return on investment, and then the wells will be shuttered. Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, has said that the state will no longer issue permits for fracking, beginning in 2024, and has set a goal of ending oil extraction in California by 2045. He recently prohibited the construction of new oil and gas wells within thirty-two hundred feet of homes, schools, and health-care facilities; his 2022 budget includes money to retrain oil and gas workers. Like most climate-change policy, however, there’s a tendency toward procrastination that softens the emergency, that puts off the changes until next year or the year after that. Last year, the state issued five hundred and forty-two permits to drill new wells in the state of California, and more than fifteen hundred permits to rework old ones, including several in Los Angeles. The patience of many people who live alongside these wells is running out.

The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is a hilly park frequented by joggers. A path to the top wends its way past a hummingbird garden to a summit bristling with cell-phone and radio towers, halting at a fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side, extending nearly two miles into the distance, is the great sweep of the Inglewood Oil Field, one of the largest urban drilling operations in the United States. It is vast and brown, crisscrossed with dirt roads, dotted sparsely with pumpjacks and vents—an incongruous void in a view of the city that reaches all the way to the Pacific. It seems impossible, in such a densely populated place, that so much land has been cordoned off for a purpose that largely excludes human habitation, and that oil has managed to maintain supremacy over so many other economic interests. More than a million people live within five miles of the field’s perimeter.

In January, I was driven to the overlook in a white Toyota Prius by Paul Ferrazzi, a retired cameraman dressed in a Carhartt jacket and jeans. Ferrazzi’s long self-education in the relationship between the city’s oil and its people began with his opposition to a housing development called Playa Vista, which was built, in the early two-thousands, near a depleted oil reservoir that now serves as a natural-gas storage site. A methane leak bubbles out of the development’s man-made lake, and buildings on the site are equipped with alarms in preparation for a major natural-gas seep. In 2015, Porter Ranch, a less populous development on a similar site, called Aliso Canyon, had to be evacuated, when a single methane leak that lasted several months doubled greenhouse-gas emissions in the Los Angeles area.

Joining us in the Prius was Deborah Weinrauch, a lawyer and animal-rights activist with blond bangs and an ethereal demeanor that called to mind Stevie Nicks in her golden years. Ferrazzi and Weinrauch both live in Culver City, which contains about ten per cent of the Inglewood Oil Field’s wells. We had met earlier that afternoon in Weinrauch’s house in a nearby gated community. Weinrauch’s front door read “Cat Lovers Welcome.” The street Weinrauch lives on terminates in a fence that marks the field’s boundary; oil pumps are visible a few yards away. Many years ago, having heard about feral cats living on the grounds of the oil field, Weinrauch went out and saw what she described as a colony of severely deformed cats and kittens living near pipes that appeared to be leaking oil. She had moved to Culver City in 1999, after Chevron had sold off its drilling rights to the oil field. The state government had begun to draw up plans to convert the field into a “Central Park of the West” that would have been the largest urban park developed in a century. Instead, the field was bought by a Texas company, Plains Exploration and Production, which began intensive efforts to exhume difficult-to-reach oil, efforts that included the hydraulic fracturing of twenty-three vertical wells. A state regulator was later fired and fined for having expedited drilling permits for the company, in which he owned stock.