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Lakeview Gusher still largest U.S. oil spill

June 28, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The ongoing BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is massive, but the oil blowout of all oil blowouts occurred in Southern California a century ago. In terms of climate and geography, the Gulf Coast couldn't be more different than the dry, hot hills of western Kern County.

But the principal towns here, Maricopa and Taft, have a thing or two in common with Morgan City, La. and Biloxi, Miss.

They're both centers of America's oil patch and they've both experienced oil blowouts.

The Lakeview Gusher in Kern County, near Taft just south of Bakersfield, spewed an average of 18,000 barrels a day onto the ground, far more than the Gulf oil spill.

Drillers hit oil in March of 1910 at a depth of 2,200 feet.

It was under so much pressure, a geyser of oil erupted from the ground and fanned out across the dusty landscape.

For nearly a year and a half, 1,800 barrels of oil spewed per day.

Union Oil Co., which owned the rig, built dams across surrounding canyons to corral the gooey bonanza.

Today, the well site is a tourist attraction with a bronze plaque to commemorate the event.

Remnants of the berms that held back the river of oil are still visible. And just up the road in Taft at the West Kern Oil Museum, they proudly tell visitors it was oil that made California, not gold.

"So much fuss is made about the Gold Rush," said Agnes Hardt of the museum. "The oil has been valuable in so many more ways than gold ever attempted to be."

In the end, the 1910 blowout spilled four times the oil that has spilled in the Gulf of Mexico so far. It stopped only when the well collapsed on itself.

The area still has some of the country's most productive oil fields.

Local residents like to take the long view of oil field mishaps.

"All industries have disasters and we get beyond it and continue to live," said Michael Long, publisher of the Taft Independent, a local newspaper. "Oil is not going to go away. The whole world is powered by oil."

Bruce Holmes is a third generation oilman in Maricopa.

"I've been immersed oil all my life and I'm not dead yet," he said. "I'm still kicking, stirring up dust and taking names."

Occidental Petroleum Corp. recently announced it has discovered a new field in the area, but didn't say how large.

Another gusher like Lakeview, however, is highly unlikely.


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