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Midway-Sunset Field Blowout, 1910

Blowout preventers haven’t always been used for drilling operations. In 1910, they had not been invented yet and America experienced its largest oil spill to date, spewing ~nine million barrels of oil for over a year. The Midway-Sunset Oil Field, located in Kern County, California was being increasingly explored for hydrocarbons in the early 1900’s. However, much to the dismay of the wildcatters looking to strike it big, many of the wells drilled were either dry holes, or only produced natural gas. An oil company by the name of Lakeview was one of the companies involved in exploration of the Midway-Sunset field.1Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, May 26). Lakeview Gusher. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeview_Gusher2San Joaquin Geological Society. (n.d.). The Story of the Lakeview Gusher. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20061019100520/http://www.sjgs.com/lakeview.html3Harvey, S. (2010, June 13). California’s legendary oil spill. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-jun-13-la-me-then-20100613-story.html 

Lakeview gusher (1910) as seen from the derrick

Location of Lakeview blowout

In April of 1910, Lakeview Oil Company drilled a well into a highly pressurized crude oil reservoir at a depth of 2,200 ft. The pressure in the reservoir far exceeded the wellbore pressure provided by the drilling mud being used, so when the well tapped into the formation to allow the oil and gas to escape, a large geyser resulted, destroying the derrick and wellbore. Given there was no such thing as blowout preventers (BOPs) at the time and the well was damaged, it was extremely difficult to mitigate the flow of crude oil, which lasted over a year. As crude oil began flowing, workers tried their best to stop the flow, which they knew would have disastrous environmental consequences to nearby water sources. In an effort to reduce flow, sand bags were even used to create dams.4Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, May 26). Lakeview Gusher. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeview_Gusher5San Joaquin Geological Society. (n.d.). The Story of the Lakeview Gusher. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20061019100520/http://www.sjgs.com/lakeview.html

An estimated nine million barrels of crude oil leaked from the well before it was eventually stopped by its own nature (the evacuation of the oil from the reservoir caused the reservoir pressure to drop to the point where it could no longer push fluids to the surface through the well). A large wooden box structure, secured with heavy cables, was built over the top of the well to contain the geyser, but the force of the flow eventually ripped the containment effort apart.  Ultimately, the main recovery efforts were left to surrounding the accumulating pool of oil at the surface with sandbags. A pipeline was constructed to carry much of the trapped crude to the California coast at Port Avila. However, it is estimated that less than forty-percent of the total spill was ever contained.6Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, May 26). Lakeview Gusher. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeview_Gusher7San Joaquin Geological Society. (n.d.). The Story of the Lakeview Gusher. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20061019100520/http://www.sjgs.com/lakeview.html 

The Midway-Sunset oil spill set the precedent that safer oil field practices were needed, and many reforms were instituted, including the development and design of BOPs. Decades of technological advancements have greatly improved our understanding of the subsurface prior to drilling, but blowouts can still be a significant risk when drilling initial exploratory and production wells. Since BOPs are important for the safety of the crew and natural environment, as well as the drilling rig and the wellbore itself, regulations require that BOPs be regularly inspected, tested and refurbished.8Harvey, S. (2010, June 13). California’s legendary oil spill. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-jun-13-la-me-then-20100613-story.html9Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, June 3). Blowout Preventer. Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowout_preventer

Midway-Sunset Oil Field as it looks today, San Joaquin Valley, California

Image Credits: unknown photographer, 1910, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Maps ; Photo Courtesy of Hilary Olson

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