Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Largest Blowout in American History

The recent blowout of the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico will be one of the great blotches on the face of the oil industry for decades to come.

Surprisingly enough, there was a blowout of even greater proportions onshore in California that flowed up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day for 18 months before it was brought under control. During that time, it is estimated that the well produced more than 9 million barrels of oil. In comparison, if the BP Deepwater Horizon well has flowed 60,000 barrels of oil over the past 85 days, it will have produced 5.1 million barrels of oil.

The Lakeview Oil Gusher blew out on March 14th, 1910. The well had been spudded by a small private oil company called Lakeview Oil Company that ran into financial problems. The well was taken over by the Union Oil Company, now part of Unocal Corporation. The Lakeview well was located between the towns of Taft and Maricopa in south central California, about 170 kilometres north of Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, geology and geophysical input was not used when the location for the well was selected, rather, there was a theory that grass grew red over an accumulation of oil. As well, at that point in time, oil well drilling was rather primitive; wooden derricks were used and there were no blowout preventers to prevent, well, blowouts. When the 2200 foot deep well blew out, it started flowing oil at an uncontrolled rate of 18,000 BOPD and soon reached a production rate of 100,000 BOPD; the plume of oil reached nearly 200 feet into the air. The derrick was completely destroyed and a crater was left behind that made it completely impossible to control the flow of oil. Most of the oil produced either evaporated or soaked into the soil at the site; only about 40% of the oil was recovered and sold. So much oil blew out of the hole that crews had to build 20 foot high dykes around the site to contain the oil and prevent it from flowing into Buena Vista Lake. The massive flow of oil created a lake of about 60 acres in size. Accompanying the oil lake was an plume of oily mist that was noted as much as 30 miles from the well site.

What is rather interesting about the story was that the well was very nearly abandoned, in fact, the drilling crew had been told to stop drilling because it appeared that the hole was dry, however, against orders they kept drilling ahead until they hit an over-pressured formation that obviously contained a lot of oil.

Strangely enough, some people felt that the blowout was a sign from God that oil was meant to stay in the ground to "kindle the hells of fire". You know, maybe they weren't so wrong way back in 1910!

Attempts were made to control the well but the sheer volume of oil made it difficult. What the crew finally did was to place a steel "semi-cap" weighing several tons over the plume of oil and anchor the cap to the ground with steel guy wires. Basically, all this did was control the spray of oil and sediment and confine it to the oil lake rather than letting it spread over a wider area. This sounds like technology that BP should have considered...or perhaps already has.

The well died as quickly as it started when the hole caved in on itself on September 10th, 1911. By that time, it was only producing about 40 barrels of oil per day. Today all that remains are the original well cavity, a few sandbags and some dried oil that has turned to layers of asphalt. Oh yes, and a plaque that commemorates what will hopefully still be the United States greatest oil well blowout.


If you wish to see more photos of this fascinating part of American history, click here.


  1. I had never heard a thing about this! And this is why I keep coming back here. What great researching!

  2. Let's not forget one BIG difference, though. The Lakeview Gusher was above ground, not deep under water. Not that that makes it any better, both are tragic disasters, man-made.

  3. Thanks and yes, I know it was on land but it still makes a pretty cool story (unless you owned land in the area of the well). I liked their very low tech approach to solving the problem; not all that dissimilar to what BP is trying to do today.