The Termo Company: A Long Beach Staple In The Oil And Gas Industry
By Joshua H. Silavent - Staff Writer
October 09, 2012 - There are many big names and players in the oil and gas industry in Long Beach. And it’s no wonder. From the oil islands to the Los Cerritos Wetlands, from Signal Hill to the Wilmington Oil Field, the substantial influence and importance of local oil and gas production cannot be overstated. And The Termo Company has been a part of it since oil was first discovered in Long Beach and Signal Hill in the 1920s.
In all that time, Termo has remained a family-run business, passed down across four generations.
The Termo Company is a family-run business, passed down across four generations.
David Combs, left, the president and CEO, stands next to his son, Ralph, manager
of corporate development, as the two hold a prized picture of Eldredge, the son
of Termo’s founding partner, EE Combs.
(Photograph by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville)
“Termo really is a very unique corporate culture,” said Ralph Combs, manager of corporate development. “It’s like a big family.”
Combs’ great-grandfather, EE Combs, got his start in the industry in 1926 when he mortgaged his house to pay for drilling a well in Signal Hill. Though EE lacked the practical experience of an oilman, he knew a good thing when he saw it. The industry was booming across Southern California, thanks largely to the discovery of the Long Beach Oil Field in Signal Hill in 1921.
In 1933, EE partnered with Roscoe Oaks, a retired Union Carbide executive, to form Termo. By this time, EE had the know-how and Oaks supplied the capital, Combs said.
In time, Termo would expand its operations to Huntington Beach, then Texas, and now operates as far as Louisiana and Wyoming. Along the way, Combs’ grandfather, Eldredge, and father, David, took the reins of the company.
Termo currently operates 21 oil wells in the Long Beach area, producing the equivalent of 245 barrels per day in the Los Cerritos Wetlands, Signal Hill and even behind company headquarters on Cherry Avenue, where two wells have been producing oil without interruption since the 1940s. It operates 50 wells across the Los Angeles Basin, 110 in California and 153 nationwide.
“We will always be an oil heavy company,” Combs said. “It’s our roots.”
However, Termo does have natural gas assets, accounting for about 15 percent of its business.
Termo employs 43 people, from field operators and petroleum engineers to geologists and administrative staff.
“We have a pretty diverse staff,” Combs said. “It’s reflective of Long Beach itself.”
Termo’s involvement in the local oil and gas industry also reflects the unique position of an urban city like Long Beach, one of the few municipalities in the country that produces oil and operates its own gas utility.
“There’s a real romance to the industry,” Combs said, and Long Beach has contributed to this lore.
Of course, it only takes one catastrophic incident like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska to shake the public’s confidence in the industry.
“The conversation always starts from a point of distrust, whether you’re talking to regulators or the general public,” Combs said. “The industry has somewhat brought that upon itself.”
To counter public perception of the industry as a greedy, irresponsible, faceless corporation, Combs said it is necessary for oil producers to better engage the communities where they operate.
That’s why Termo launched a charitable giving committee, which focuses on issues like hunger and poverty in Long Beach. The company also engages in youth development programs and environmental conservation. And this ethic dates back a long time, Combs said. For example, Termo once offered loans for employees to make a down payment on a home.
“We have a deep respect for the role we play in providing energy to society,” Combs said. “We’re trying to do more to support the community and the city that has given us so much.”
Improving safety and environmental stewardship also is key to improving the industry’s image, Combs said, and technological innovations are making this possible.
“It’s about how to do it effectively in a way that makes a really positive impression on society but also, let’s be frank, benefits your business,” Combs said.
This includes things like technical training and cutting air pollution. Termo, for example, has installed vapor recovery technology to reduce emissions and pollution at its well operations.
“From a business standpoint, it becomes key to efficiently combine your safety, environmental and operational needs into one system,” Combs said. “There’s always a degree of risk in this industry. Honestly, it can be a dirty and dangerous business. So you have to do your absolute upmost to both operationally and personally reduce those risks. No oil and gas company wants to have a spill.”
In the next five years, Termo hopes to drill 12 new wells across the Los Angeles Basin and another six or more across the state. Their commitment to California has never been stronger, Combs said, despite burgeoning opportunities in North Dakota and elsewhere.
“California will remain a real strong focus,” he added. “And we will continue to participate as an investor with other companies in North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas.”
Combs said that about 50 percent of Termo’s capital budget is targeted at investment and partnership opportunities.
“You compete and cooperate with the same people,” he said. “You have to.”