The Lakeview Gusher
The largest oil spill of all time is a special case, the deliberate opening of the valves at Kuwait’s Sea Island terminal by the Iraqi army during the First Gulf War. Nearly 10,000,000 barrels of oil ended up in the Persian Gulf before American air strikes closed the pipelines in January of 1991.
If one sticks to accidents, though, most of the famous spills—for example, the Amoco Cadiz or the Exxon Valdez—don’t really approach the volume of the #1 accident of all time (the Deepwater Horizon‘s ultimate output is unknown as of this writing, but has only a remote chance of hitting the record). Almost all the big spills happened because of oil tankers and their enormous size, but surprisingly the record-holder was on land, in the California oil fields.
California is not generally thought of as an oil-producing state, but between the opening of commercial oil production in Pennsylvania that peaked in the 1890s and the commercialization of the enormous East Texas oil field in the 1930s, Southern California was the most important source of oil in the United States. Starting in the 1880s large amounts were extracted in the Los Angeles basin (urban LA still produces a noticeable amount of oil), but by the turn of the century the big action was out in the semi-desert of the southern San Joaquin Valley, near Bakersfield.
Lakeview Number One was drilled over the course of fifteen months by the Lakeview Oil Company, partnered with Union Oil of California (later Unocal and now part of Chevron) beginning in 1909. Charles Lewis Woods was the man tapped to do the work, and it’s become quite difficult to determine the exact events leading up to the oil spill. In 1910 America was in the habit of semi-mythologizing the people responsible for the US’s rapid economic development, whether it was giants like Thomas Edison, fictional personifications like Paul Bunyan, or minnows like Charles Woods. Edison was at least important enough that he left a trail of contemporary reports that can be turned into biography. Woods has little left besides a raft of contradictory legends.
That said, the basic story is that Woods had earned the nickname “Dry Hole Charlie” for his lack of success in the oil drilling business. Looking deeper suggests that this is because his specialty was exploratory drilling—he didn’t bother with places where people already knew oil could be found, but rather spent his time trying to open new fields. A second legend is that he was actually told to close up the Lakeview Number One as a failure, and that he ignored orders to drill for one more day, the evening of that day being when he hit oil. That seems a little too “just so” to be true, but the story is part of Woods’ legacy.
So, whether or not he was supposed to be drilling any more, Woods reached 740 meters down and the oil started flowing. The California oil fields are usually under pressure, so standard practice at the time, once the layers of impermeable rock above a pocket of oil had been punctured, was to let the pressure pump the well for you. Rather than the stereotypical horse head pulling the oil to the surface, the oil would spurt out of the ground like a geyser — a “blowout” which produces a “gusher” — at which point it would be capped, and the pressure used to push the oil into nearby storage containers. Unfortunately, the Lakeview Gusher was such a monster that the capping step was a problem.
Later analysis would show that Woods’ hole had actually missed the pocket of oil it was tapping by more than a meter, but that the pressure within was so high that it actually fractured the last stretch of solid rock on its own. Initially the Lakeview Gusher flowed at a rate of about 15,000 barrels per day, but as it eroded its well shaft the rate increased. At its peak, it was firing anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 (some estimates are as high as 125,000) barrels of oil up to two hundred feet in the air every 24 hours. Even worse, its oil was what’s called “low ratio”—it wasn’t pure, but was mixed up with sand. Every “barrel” was actually six to eight cubic meters of muddy goulash, raining down on the landscape for fifty or more kilometers depending on how hard the wind was blowing.
At the well-head the pressure was so high that the first attempt to build a cap (at the time, a heavy box of timber beams) was literally blown to pieces. Eventually the oil company gave up trying to cap the gusher and settled on a second strategy, which had been used elsewhere but not to the same extent. Just like when a river floods, workers were hired to build an embankment of timbers and sandbags around the gusher. The local terrain required them to build a wall 150 feet wide at one end of a nearby gully and 250 feet at the other. It was, in places, 75 feet above the edge of the folds in the ground. In total, it could hold 16 million barrels of oil (or, in more commonly understood units, 672 million gallons, or 2.5 billion liters). Though the oil lake never quite reached the rim, at times the reservoir was up to 30 meters deep. The well was in the middle of this, so workers had to paddle out to it in small boats. This undoubtedly would have broken any number of health-and-safety regulations, if California had had any in 1910.
A “semi-cap” was eventually placed over the wellhead to at least keep the plume of oil in its gully and stop it from spewing all over the landscape. Some idea of the power of the gusher can be obtained by understanding that this new box hovered about ten feet in the air despite weighing several tons. To keep it from being propelled off into the middle distance somewhere, it had to be anchored to the ground by steel guy wires, which were in constant tension as the oil and muck roared and played against the underside of what was essentially a giant timber raft. Eventually the growing weight of the oil lake (and its growing depth) above the wellhead brought the tip of the gusher down to man height.
Most large gushers give out after a short while; the famous Lucas Gusher in Texas’ Spindletop oil field was as voluminous as Lakeview One, but dwindled away to much lower levels within a few months. Lakeview kept going at roughly the same volume, diminishing slowly to 60,000 barrels per day, until September 10th, 1911 when the bottom of the hole it had been eroding collapsed and filled in the well (some sources say September 9th). For 544 days the Lakeview Gusher had produced a significant fraction of all the world’s oil—to the point that, even with something like 40% of its production being wasted by being absorbed into the soil or flying all around the landscape at the top of an uncapped plume, what Union Oil could recover drove down the world oil price by 70% (from roughly $1 per barrel to 30¢ per barrel).
Gushers are much less common these days, as the blowout preventer was invented in 1924 and they’re attached to most modern wells. A gusher in Qum, Iran in 1954 was one of the last major ones on land, though it’s worth pointing out that the recent Deepwater Horizon accident seems to have been a blowout as well (and its gusher, somewhat amazingly given the extent of the oil spill, is probably no more than half as big as the Lakeview Gusher at its peak).
In Bakersfield’s semi-desert landscape, there are still remnants of the sandbags that surrounded the gusher, and the sandy ground still contains enough oil residue that it sticks together in cake-like layers. A plaque dedicated to the event is found near the now dry hole. Legend has it that Dry Hole Charlie then went on to live up to his nickname for the rest of his career.
(A remarkable set of historical and current photos of the Lakeview Gusher can be found here on Flickr).