SIGNAL HILL, Calif. — The oil rig rumbles to life, breaking the early morning quiet in this neighborhood of urban townhouses and big box stores with a deafening screech and roar.
As sleepy commuters idle at a nearby stop light, a grease-caked drilling crew scrambles to repair and expand one of the dozens of aging oil wells that dot the landscape of this small, hillside city about 30 miles south of Los Angeles.
With oil prices at $110 a barrel, producers nationwide are suddenly taking a second look at decades-old wells that were considered tapped out and unprofitable when oil sold for one-fifth the price or less. Independent producers and major conglomerates alike are reinvesting millions in these mature wells, using expensive new technology and drilling techniques to eke every last drop out of fields long past their prime — and often in the middle of suburbia.
In this instance, Terra Exploration & Production Co. believes that up to 2 billion barrels of oil remain hidden beneath Signal Hill, once nicknamed "Porcupine Hill" for its crown of oil derricks before developers planted gated communities and strip malls.
"A lot of these wells have been sitting idle for many years," said Mick Conner, who hopes to increase daily production on his half-dozen wells. "If we can take a 10-barrel well and make it a 20-barrel well, it becomes very profitable for us."
In California, some of the least profitable and old wells — so-called "stripper" wells — are clustered in a dense urban environment, tucked between malls, gas stations and homes. They are the legacy of a turn-of-the-century oil boom that quickly faded with the discovery of oil in Texas and the depletion of the easiest reserves.
But the move to boost production on these aging oil fields has also inspired bitter protests from some homeowners, some of whom live just a few dozen feet from active wells. Many do not own the mineral rights under their land or moved in long after the original well was built.
"I'm personally astounded they're even considering this," said Young, who does not own the oil rights under his house. "It is loud, it is noisy and it stinks."
In recent years, the state's oil production has declined by about 5 percent annually as the easy oil dried up, said Hal Bopp, California's oil and gas supervisor. But with producers revisiting these sites, he said, the state's production increased by 2 1/2 million barrels last year for the first time in years. Between 50 and 100 abandoned "orphan wells" have also been brought back online.
The story is the same across the nation. In Texas, one of the largest oil-producing states, producers filed more than 5,000 applications to unplug or upgrade old wells or drill new ones last year — an increase of nearly 2,000 from five years before.
One of those producers is Rick Mullins, who hopes to get several hundred thousand more barrels out of a well known as Miss Elly before he's done by using new techniques to plumb pockets that previously were bypassed when the economics weren't right.
"Almost every play that we're doing right now, we probably would not be doing in the late 1990s when it was a few dollars a barrel," said Mullins, who says he spends between $700,000 and $3 million per site to re-enter old wells.
In central Wyoming, companies are using carbon dioxide injections to coax more oil out of declining fields and in Oklahoma, state lawmakers agreed to ban the practice of plugging lower-producing wells, so producers could drain every last drop.
"They are now producing one, two, five barrels a day," said Steven Agee, chairman of the state's Energy Resources Board. "Five a day doesn't seem like a lot, but ... that's 150 barrels a month times $100 and you're looking at $15,000 a month for a well."
In the Rockies, crude oil production has risen by 30 percent since 2005, mostly because drillers are working on federal land that they previously bypassed because of the tough terrain, poor access and strict environmental regulations, said Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States.
The boom has strained the industry, and a shortage of working oil rigs means companies who don't own their own equipment can wait six months to secure a rig and crew. They can expect to pay up to $1 million to rent the rig and hundreds of dollars a day for the work.
Environmentalists and homeowners, however, see trouble behind the dollar signs. Both groups argue that because many of the companies are expanding pre-existing wells — many that were idled or in disrepair — the danger for accidents and leaks is higher.
They also worry that new techniques, such as drilling horizontally instead of vertically, drilling far deeper and using carbon dioxide to force oil to the surface, could damage the environment or create instability in the ground.
Environmentalists worry that horizontal drilling, which allows companies to reach previously untapped reserves, could also enable them to suck oil from federally protected lands or fragile ecosystems without being noticed from above.
"Oil companies are making record profits, so in a lot of cases the price of oil is used as an excuse to drill in these places," said Kristina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. "There are concerns about leakage, water contamination and pollution."
Linda Smith lives directly across from an oil well in Huntington Beach, a laid-back community known as Surf City, USA. When she and her husband bought their three-story, $2 million home a half-block from the beach, they hoped the producer would soon take the squeaky pump out.
Ten years later, he has added bigger tanks because of the growing profit. An oil rig shows up outside her door at least once a month to do maintenance on the well and once a small fire started on the site. She also worries about fumes that come out of a tall, rust-colored smokestack.
"It's a big eyesore and it devalues our home. I hate it," she said. "I just wish I had a pipeline to it to my car."
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