The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 10, 2010

BP spill only latest black mark in industry history

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Remember Mr. Short-Term Memory, played on several occasions by Tom Hanks on “Saturday Night Live” in the late-1980s and early ’90s? He couldn’t remember a thing he had seen just minutes before.

That’s kind of the way we are when it comes to the spilling of crude oil around our globe throughout the relatively short period in history oil has been pumped, spewed, piped or carried around the globe.

I have to include myself in this memory loss, for after researching the subject I was rather stunned by just how many times history has recorded man spilling black gold on the planet — and making a huge environmental mess.

While history still is in the process of recording the massive oil mess pouring into the Gulf of Mexico following an oil rig platform explosion off the coast of Louisiana, it is yet to be seen just how bad the problem is going to end up.

It’s safe to say, however, it’s going to be bad — for British Petroleum and for the United States and its fragile Gulf Coast.

But it’s hardly the first oil spill ... and may not even be the worst.

Americans know all too well of the Exxon Valdez supertanker spill along the Alaska coast in Prince William Sound, when about 10.8 million gallons of crude devastated 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean.

But it was a small spill when compared to history.

Here are the 12 worst oil spills recorded across the world:

• Supertanker Torrey Canyon spill, 1967, at Skilly Isles, United Kingdom, 25-36 million gallons.

• South Korean tanker Sea Star oil spill, 1972, Gulf of Oman, 35.3 million gallons.

• Odyssey oil spill, 1988, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, 40.7 million gallons.

• Oil tanker M/T Haven explosion and sinking, 1991, off the coast of Italy, 45 million gallons.

• Tanker ABT Summer oil spill, 1991, off the coast of Angola, 51-81 million gallons.

• Tanker Amoco Cadiz spill, 1978, Portsall, France, 69 million gallons into the English Channel.

• Tanker Castillo de Vellver spill, 1983, off South Africa’s Saldanha Bay, 79 million gallons.

• Nowruz Oil Field platform spill, 1983, Iran’s Persian Gulf area, 80 million gallons.

• Kolva River ruptured pipeline oil spill, Russia, 1994, 84 million gallons.

• Oil tanker Atlantic Empress spill, off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, 1979, 90 million gallons.

• Ixtox 1 offshore oil rig spill, Bay of Campeche, Mexico, June 3, 1979 to March 23, 1980, 140 million gallons.

• The No. 1 oil spill of all time was the Arabian Gulf/Kuwait oil spill, when Iraqi soldiers opened valves and spread oil across Kuwait during the Gulf War, 380-520 million gallons.

And the worst oil spill in U.S. history? — you’ve probably never even heard of it.

It occurred on March 14, 1910, in Kern County, Calif., and was known as Lakeview Gusher. It caused as much as 9 million barrels of oil — 378 million gallons — to be disgorged across the county landscape north of Los Angeles.

The oil well, a collaboration between Union Oil Co. and Lakeview Oil Co., blew out when a well casing gave way under the tremendous pressure of oil and gas in the formation. In those days, there were no procedures for handling a gusher of such pressure and unlimited flow, and it spewed oil over the landscape for 18 months, until it was brought under control in September 1911.

Oil spewed 200 feet in the air, and rivers of the black crude ran everywhere, eventually turning the land around the well into asphalt. While it basically ruined the immediate landscape for all time, the oil spilled in a relatively barren area of West Kern County, between Maricopa and Taft.

While the oil industry deals with things like blowouts, accidents and inadequate safety features, the rest of the world has to stand by and hope it has the technology to contain and mitigate such environmental disasters like we are witnessing in the Gulf.

And while petroleum technology has moved by leaps and bounds since the Lakeview Gusher in 1910, the question to be continually asked, and hopefully answered, is when will the oil industry’s technology of cleaning up these spills catch up to the ability to tap the Earth’s vast resources of petroleum?

As we see almost daily on the pages of this newspaper, on TV screens, iPhones and the blogasphere, oil spill disasters are going to continue to plague mankind for the foreseeable future.

So, it behooves us to find a way to deal with their massive cleanup costs, or to compel companies that make tens of billions of dollars in profits from these ventures to clean up their act — literally and historically speaking.

Christy is news editor at the News & Eagle and may be reached at