“I claim that I did invent the driving Pipe and drive it and without that they could not bore on bottom land when the earth is full of water. And I claim to have bored the first well that ever was bored for Petroleum in America and can show the well.”
So wrote Edwin Draka aka Colonel Drake, who is “popularly credited with being the first to drill for oil in the United States” on August 27, 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. His methods were quickly copied by others and “By 1871, the entire area was producing 5.8 million barrels a year.”
As Daniel Yergin wrote in his still must-read Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power (where I found Drake’s quote):
Drake’s discovery would, in due course, bequeath mobility and power to the world’s population, play a central role in the rise and fall of nations and empires, and become a major element in the transformation of human society.
Combined with Henry Ford’s mass production and moving assembly line, the oil boom ushered in the American Century. For two world wars, America was not just the arsenal of democracy, we were the engine fuel of democracy. As late as the mid-1950s, we still produced roughly half of all the world’s oil — twice as much oil as the Middle Eastern and North African states combined.
But our drain-America-first policy — coupled with the gross inefficiency of our oil consumption and successful conservative efforts to block an energy policy built around efficiency and alternatives — caused U.S. production to peak decades ago. And now world oil consumption is peaking, even as the nation’s and the world’s fossil fuel consumption are driving us toward catastrophic climate impacts, Hell and High Water, which would outlast the oil age by a thousand years.
The U.S. oil industry, going back to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, has long been guilty of the most anti-competitive tactics. Originally, those harsh tactics focused on competitors, with the worst impact for most Americans being higher prices than they might otherwise have experienced. “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that antitrust law required Standard Oil to be broken into smaller, independent companies,” but “ExxonMobil, however, does represent a substantial part of the original company.”
ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute are still guilty of harsh, anti-competitive tactics, but the worst impacts of their massively funded disinformation campaign will be to ruin a livable climate for the next 100 billion people to walk the planet. If we don’t overcome that campaign and reverse emissions trends quickly, then long after an oil-driven economy is a distant memory, future generations will curse the industry for engaging in the most despicable act in human history — persuading just enough Americans, opinion makers, and politicians to delay or weaken efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.