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Drake’s World

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On this day 150 years ago—August 27, 1859—Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, with the world’s first oil well. We should all say a toast of thanks to the man who helped raise the curtain on the modern world.

This has been a summer of anniversaries, with the media making much over the moon landing of July 1969 and the throngs at Woodstock a few weeks later. But today marks an anniversary which is of far greater consequence than either of those more celebrated events, even though it will surely attract scant attention.

On this day 150 years ago—August 27, 1859—Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, PA, with the world’s first oil well.

That single-sentence description of what occurred at Titusville—though accurate—shortchanges Drake’s accomplishment. What Drake really did was apply ingenuity and technological innovation in a completely unorthodox manner to help solve one of society’s growing problems. Drake and the investors who backed him were derided for pursuing the notion of drilling for oil in the same manner that drillers bored salt wells. But their success with their supposedly foolish endeavors showed that oil could be extracted from below ground in substantial quantities. And with that success, the oil rush was on.

By the summer of 1859, people had already begun to realize that “rock oil,” as it was known, could serve two very useful purposes. One, it could be refined to provide kerosene, an illuminant that might light up homes and businesses. Up to that time people used wicks dipped in fat, or dirty “town gas” produced from coal, or the oil extracted from the heads of sperm whales. But the global supply of whales was dwindling, and the price of sperm oil was increasing, so Drake’s discovery was welcome news in helping bring people’s lives into the modern era.

Today oil is used for something that nobody thought about a whit when Drake’s well sparked America’s first oil mania.

Drake’s oil gusher solved another problem, too. Petroleum stood poised to provide the lubricants that a rapidly mechanized, industrializing society would require. Today roughly a quarter of our petroleum consumption goes to things like lubricants, pharmaceuticals, plastics, fertilizers, and pesticides, rather than into the tanks of our cars.

Oil presently plays a huge part in our energy economy, but the fascinating thing to realize as we take note of the sesquicentennial of Drake’s discovery is that today oil is used for something that nobody thought about a whit when his well sparked America’s first oil mania. Today the largest share of our oil use is for transportation, powering our cars and trucks and airplanes. Indeed, oil’s use for transportation helped define the 20th century. And while oil does not wholly dominate our energy economy, it still represents the largest share (roughly 40 percent) of Americans’ energy consumption.

And yet there is a movement afoot to do away with oil. Oil enriches dictators in the Middle East, Venezuela, and Russia, after all, and permits these bad actors to hold some sway over the global economy. Meanwhile some voice concerns that this non-renewable resource will someday run out, and that we may be closer to that date than we realize. And of course there are worries about the greenhouse gas emissions from burning gasoline.

A century and a half after its discovery, oil is not going anywhere soon.

President George W. Bush used the bully pulpit of the State of the Union address to declare an ambition to move America beyond what he termed “our addiction to oil.” President Barack Obama has promised to transform our energy economy away from oil and other fossil fuels. The federal government has been investing billions of dollars in alternatives to oil for decades.

To the extent we move beyond oil it will not be because of government efforts. Now, it is true that oil’s share of the economy is growing slightly smaller each year. Its place slowly is being taken by electricity and the fuels that produce it—coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables such as hydro, wind, and solar power. The steadily creeping electrification of the economy is the biggest story of energy, though its swath is so broad as to go largely unnoticed among the picayune, day-to-day worries about unrest in the Middle East or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s saber-rattling. But it is no less real as a consequence, and that trend will only increase in coming decades as electricity makes inroads into transportation and $3.50 per gallon gas will be supplanted by electrons whose cost is measured in cents, not dollars.

A century and a half after its discovery, oil is not going anywhere soon. The world consumes more than 80 million barrels of the stuff every day. The almost fanciful promise of hydrogen or fusion is likely half a century off, if it ever does come. There is not enough corn in the world to replace anything but a negligible portion of the world’s oil consumption, so ethanol is no answer either. Other biofuels, meanwhile, do little but cause a host of new economic and environmental problems. And while the economy will continue to electrify, there will still be a place for oil, which has demonstrated a tremendous usefulness in a host of areas for 150 years. Expect that to continue for another 150 years or more.

The good news is that there is more than enough oil to continue meeting the world’s needs for well into the next century, no matter how those needs may change (and they surely will change). The National Petroleum Council, made up of experts such as former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Daniel Yergin, noted in a 2007 report that, “generally, about one third of the oil in place is currently assumed to be ultimately recoverable. This assumption yields an estimated 4.5 trillion barrels or more of conventional and unconventional ultimately recoverable oil.” Since Colonel Drake constructed his ramshackle wooden derrick and sunk his drill into the ground, humanity has consumed about a trillion barrels of oil.

Surely someone else eventually would have discovered a means to bring oil to the surface if Colonel Drake had continued to drill dry wells. But we rightly celebrate the first. Today Titusville will hold a celebration to honor the man who put their town on the map. We should all say a toast of thanks to Edwin Drake, who helped raise the curtain on the modern world.

Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

 

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