FEATURE-Oil gushers: not quite what they used to be

* California gusher in 1910 was twice as large as BP spill

* Lakeview disaster led to apocalyptic fears and prayers

* Nearby towns celebrate “Oildorado” and “Gusher Days”

By Braden Reddall

TAFT, Calif., Nov 4 (BestGrowthStock) – Drive too fast through the
dusty, rolling hills of California’s oil country and you could
easily miss the site of the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

A plaque, and a bulletin board with 10 printed pages that
tell the story, are all that mark the location of the Lakeview
gusher. It spewed out 9 million barrels of oil a century before
BP’s disaster severely altered the views of many people about
the always risky business of drilling for oil.

But in nearby towns, locals still celebrate Lakeview’s
lucrative legacy, whether it’s “Gusher Days” in Maricopa or
Taft’s “Oildorado” festival, which ended late last month.

The bash in Taft, attended by oilfield workers and their
families, was steeped in Old West nostalgia and the importance
of oil for their city, the country and their livelihoods. The
1910 gusher received only passing mentions.

Just outside Taft, about 110 miles (180 km) northwest of
Los Angeles, anyone can wander around the crater left by the
gusher, where rodents and ants scurry among scrub brush and
broken bottles.

“It was ignored, and abused, and now people are suddenly
interested,” Agnes Hardt said of the crater, about 4 miles (6
km) from the West Kern Oil Museum, where she serves as director
of volunteers.

Hardt recently took a group of students to the site, which
had seemed largely forgotten until BP Plc’s (BP.L: ) blowout in
the Gulf of Mexico made it relevant again, not least because
Lakeview was about twice the size of BP’s spill. (For a graphic
oil spills click on http://r.reuters.com/mat52q )

Lakeview blasted out 100,000 barrels a day at its peak, in
a 200-foot (60-meter) black geyser. Drilled by a Union Oil man
known up until then as “Dry Hole Charlie” Woods, the well did
not completely stop flowing for 18 months, but it was brought
under control in October 1910, seven months after it started.

Taft formally became a city in November of that year, and
every five years for more than half a century this consummate
oil town has hosted Oildorado, a nod to El Dorado, the
legendary Lost City of Gold sought by Spanish explorers.

The BP disaster in April had threatened to cast a pall over
this year’s 10-day-long centennial bash. As one festival
organizer wrote of Lakeview in the official Oildorado program,
“Of course, we don’t celebrate that spill.”

As for Gusher Days in nearby Maricopa, this year’s festival
came one month before the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe.

LIFE BLOOD

Taft’s embrace of oil — the city’s “life blood,” as locals
put it — seems to have changed little in the past century.

Like the black stuff shown oozing down its official website
— http://oildoradodays.com/ — Oildorado seeps nostalgia for
the days when the West had only just been won, and oil gushers
regularly turned modest men into millionaires overnight.

A rifle-toting sheriff’s posse in period dress patrols the
town for any clean-shaven man without a “Smooth Puss” badge as
a waiver. Hairier festival-goers can compete in the Whiskerino
beard-growing contest.

The 20 young Maids of Petroleum, each hoping to be crowned
Oildorado Queen, wore flouncy-skirted, gold-embroidered black
dresses that would not be out of place in a Las Vegas casino.

At a ceremony dedicating a new monument to oil workers,
the word “dangerous” came up a few times when describing their
jobs, but the general tone was proud and patriotic.

“These resources have been there in the greatest time of
need,” Congressman Kevin McCarthy said, citing the importance
of U.S. self-sufficiency in oil during World War Two.

Changes in public attitudes toward oil gushers since
Lakeview may have as much to do with the fact that there are
now many other paths to riches in California as with heightened
environmental concerns.

Apple (AAPL.O: ) overtook Chevron (CVX.N: ) as the state’s most
valuable company in the past year, and biotech company Amgen
(AMGN.O: ) jockeys with Occidental Petroleum (OXY.N: ) for the
title of biggest company in the Los Angeles area.

FEARS AND PRAYERS

Lakeview served as an exclamation mark for the California
oil story that began in the late 19th century. The plaque near
the site calls it “America’s most spectacular gusher.”

According to the San Joaquin Geological Society, Dry Hole
Charlie felt his well had cut an oil “artery,” whereas all past
wells were mere “pinpricks in the earth’s thick hide.”

But this awestruck view of the Lakeview gusher grew more
complicated over time. Some preachers prayed that the oil would
not “cover the earth and bring about its flaming destruction.”

Since then, much of California’s oil legacy has been erased
as drilling thrived in Texas. Firms born in California’s oil
boom, from Baker Oil Tools to BJ Services to drill specialist
Smith, were bought by others. All are now based in Houston.

Even drilling at sea, which was pushed off the state’s
political agenda by the BP spill, got its start in California
in 1896, when companies drilled in waters from piers off the
beach at Summerland, near Santa Barbara.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, a massive spill
off Santa Barbara in 1969 gave impetus to the nascent
environmental movement.

While California’s oil history has been buried beneath its
self-image as a high-tech, sun-drenched idyll, many companies
still scour the state in search of new sources of fuel for its
fleet of 28 million petroleum-powered vehicles.

Occidental, for one, is investing heavily in California.
President and Chief Operating Officer Stephen Chazen has high
hopes for onshore oil and gas production there. Asked about
blowouts, Chazen replies, “I always view oil as very difficult
to find, and a gusher is very wasteful.”
(Reporting by Braden Reddall; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

FEATURE-Oil gushers: not quite what they used to be