The geologists had struck oil. For the next eight months, the Lakeview No. 1 gusher spewed oil uncontrolled, coating the surrounding countryside in petroleum and creating a huge lake of oil and sand at the derrick’s base that soon swallowed the derrick and drilling equipment. Workers eventually contained the lake using sandbags, but for ten more months oil continued to pour out of the well. Very little of the oil was saved and most evaporated or seeped into the ground. On September 10, 1911, the bottom of the crater caved in and the well ceased gushing oil. Workers have since filled in the crater and erected a plaque to mark the site.
Lakeview No. 1 sits atop the Midway-Sunset oil field, the largest among a series of giant oil fields that were discovered in West Kern County between 1889 and 1911. The discovery of these oil fields set off a huge boom in commercial oil production that made California one of the most prolific oil producing states. In 1893, California was producing only 470,000 barrels of oil per year, but by 1910 the state was producing 73 million barrels of oil per year and its production accounted for more than one fifth of total oil production worldwide. During the following decade, California became the leading oil producer in the United States and Midway-Sunset alone was responsible for half of the state’s oil production. Oil companies erected thousands of wooden oil derricks across West Kern County and by 1923, California’s oil fields accounted for a full quarter of oil production worldwide.
Studying environmental history has changed my comprehension of these places. As a child, I never would have imagined that just beyond the agricultural horizon (which has its own rich history) there were sites of such intrigue and importance to the energy regime of the modern world. Studying environmental history has transformed a landscape of boredom into one of endless fascination.
Understanding the environmental history of a place helps make visible distant landscapes and people that are essential to maintaining a unique and unprecedented standard of living that many have come to accept as normal. Every day, thousands of people speed along Highway 5 to and from urban and suburban centers, in cars that burn oil, without a second thought to the oil fields thirty miles west that sustain their trip and the cities and suburbs they call home.
The Midway-Sunset oil field, and the other coal and oil fields like it across the world, are at the very heart of modern life and it is surprising that so many people overlook them. Visiting sites of energy extraction and production while also learning about their history is an important step in reconciling the deep ambiguities and unease that characterize our relationship with fossil fuels and their impact on the nonhuman world.
For more information about Californian oil history see: Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Touchstone, 1991); Paul Sabin, Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940 (University of California Press, 2004); and the websites for the West Kern Oil Museum, San Joaquin Valley Geology, and California Department of Conservation.