When BP finally stopped the oil flowing from its ruptured underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico last month [July 2010], the government announced that the 4.9 million barrels (more than 205 million gallons) of oil the well had spilled over the previous three months made it the worst accidental oil spill in U.S. and world history.
Along with most other media, I reported that conclusion, but one of my readers (a man named Craig) quickly pointed out that the government and the media were all mistaken and had not looked far enough back in the history books to get the facts straight--and he was right.
The Lakeview gusher of 1910 spilled 9 million barrels of oil (that's 378 million gallons) onto a patch of scrubland in Kern County, California, between the towns of Taft and Maricopa, about 110 miles north of Los Angeles. Once it blew, the Lakeview gusher was unstoppable for 18 months.
The initial flow from the Lakeview gusher was 18,000 barrels a day, building to an uncontrolled crescendo of 100,000 barrels daily, and eventually producing only 30 barrels a day after the flood of California crude was finally stopped.
Ironically, the Lakeview gusher might never have happened if the crew on site had obeyed orders from bosses in Los Angeles. After months of unproductive drilling, Union Oil headquarters sent word to shut down the operation and abandon the well. But the crew, led by a foreman nicknamed Dry Hole Charlie, wouldn't give up. They ignored the orders and kept on drilling.
In mid-March 1910, 2,200 feet below the surface, the drilling tapped into a high-pressure reservoir and the well blew with such force that the eruption demolished the wooden derrick and created a crater so large that no one could get close enough to the well to try capping it. The well kept gushing until September 1911.
The Lakeview gusher didn't actually do much environmental damage. Black mist fell for miles around, and only the valiant work of oil workers and volunteers building dykes by hand prevented the oil from contaminating Buena Vista Lake to the east, but most of the oil soaked into the sagebrush studded soil or evaporated. And while 100 years later the area is still soaked with oil, the long-term environmental impact of the spill is generally considered minimal.
So while the Lakeview Gusher was larger in volume than the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf spill was a far bigger environmental and economic disaster.