Oil gushers are icons of early energy exploration. Once a common sight at the turn of the century, gushers have faded into history.
Though they could be a spectacular sight, gushers were dangerous and wasteful. Uncapped wells produced large amounts of oil, often times shooting hundreds of feet into the air. One spark could ignite the oil, creating a column of fire and black smoke.
Simple drilling techniques allowed oil and natural gas to travel up the well at a high rate and burst into the air. Before blowout preventers were invented, drillers could not control these high-pressure reservoirs. Uncontrollable wells are now known as blowouts.
Modern drilling techniques and improved safety measures have significantly reduced the likelihood of a blowout. Today, oil gushers are a rare sight.
Here’s a look at a few famous oil gushers from around the world.
Kern County, California
This California oil well became the largest accidental oil spill in history. More than 100,000 barrels of oil per day flowed out of Lakeview Gusher Number One.
The Lakeview Oil Company started drilling the well on Jan. 1, 1909. At first, the well only produced natural gas. Things went sour when drilling reached 2,440 feet on March 14, 1910. Pressurized oil blew through well casing above the drill bit.
Oil shot up to 200 feet in the air. The well remained uncapped for 18 months, spilling more than 9 million barrels of oil.
The flow created a river of crude. Workers built improvised sand bag dams and dikes to contain the oil, but in spite of their efforts, less than half of the released oil was recovered.
Lucas Geyser at Spindletop
Near Beaumont, Texas
The Lucas Geyser at Spindletop became the first major gusher in Texas when it struck oil on Jan. 10, 1901. The famous geyser spewed oil for nine-straight days at a rate estimated at 100,000 barrels of oil per day.
At the time, it was the largest gusher the world had ever seen. According to the Texas State Historical Association, six tons of four-inch drilling pipe shot out of the ground. Several minutes later, a stream of oil blew out over 100 feet in the air.
Driller Anthony Lucas and his crew were able to cap the well and gain control of it on Jan. 19.
The discovery of this large petroleum reserve near Beaumont heralded the birth of the Texas oil industry. With it came a frenzy of exploration and development. Within three months, Beaumont’s population of 10,000 tripled, eventually reaching 50,000. Within two years, 285 wells were in operation.
Baba Gurgur oil gusher
Near Kirkuk, Iraq
Baba Gurgur is a large Iraqi oil field known since ancient times.
The Kurdish name Baba Gurgur roughly translates to “The Father of Flames.” The field is home to a perpetual flame that has burned for at least 4,000 years. Some believe the flame is the Biblical fiery furnace mentioned in The Old Testament’s Book of Daniel.
The burning flames are fueled by natural gas seeping through cracks in the rocks.
In 1927, the Turkish Petroleum company started drilling an oil well in the Baba Gurgur field. Crews struck oil on Oct. 15 and a geyser spouted more than 130 feet into the air. Flow rate was estimated to be up to 95,000 barrels of oil per day.
The spraying oil threatened local inhabitants and there was a risk of oil polluting waterways. The decision was made to build a series of dams about a mile apart to hold back the oil.
One night, gas collected in a depression near the worksite, killing two drillers and three Iraqi workers.
It took 10 days to close the valve. The company attempted to pump the oil back into the ground, but most of it was set ablaze. Work on removing the oil was completed on Christmas Day 1927.
Gulf of Mexico
Still fresh in people’s minds, the Deepwater Horizon disaster remains the largest oil spill in U.S. waters.
The Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible offshore oil drilling rig. While drilling at the Macondo prospect on April 20, 2010, a blowout caused an explosion on the rig that killed 11 crewmen. A fireball from the explosion could be seen 40 miles away.
The accident happened during the final phases of drilling the exploratory well at Macondo. A fountain of seawater erupted onto the rig. This was followed by an eruption of mud, methane gas and water. The gas then ignited into a series of explosions. The rig sank two days later as firefighters were unable to contain the blaze.
Both the blowout preventer and blind shear ram failed, leaving the well on the sea floor gushing for 87 days. The well was capped on July 15, 2010.
The U.S. government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels of oil.
Cerro Azul No. 4
Near Tampico, Mexico
This gusher puts Lakeview to shame.
The Cerro Azul No. 4 well was drilled in the dense Veracruz jungle by Herbert Wylie for the Mexican Petroleum Company. Drilling started in 1915, and after a brief pause, continued in February 1916.
On Feb. 9, the well took a gas kick and water forced its way out of the hole. The next day, crews heard a deep rumbling and the ground began to shake. Suddenly, the drill line shot out of the hole, smashing the top of the derrick. Seven hours later, oil spouted out and formed a geyser nearly 600 feet into the air. By Feb. 15, flow was estimated at 152,000 barrels of oil per day. Workers capped the well on Feb. 19.
Nearly six years later, the well had produced more than 57 million barrels of oil. Though production has dropped off considerably, the well is still producing 100 years later.