Book review: The story of oil
A dirty business
A Pipeline Runs Through It. By Keith Fisher.
In 1908 drillers working for Weetman Pearson hit a gusher.
Pearson, a British industrialist, had done a deal with the anti-American government of Mexico for a 50-year oil concession that covered much of the state of Veracruz.
From a depth of 1,830 feet (558 metres), the Dos Bocas well exploded into a broiling fountain of oil that rose 1,000 feet into the air.
The ensuing fire raged uncontrolled for 57 days, spilling more than 10m barrels of oil and leaving a toxic environmental legacy that persists today.
A geologist at the site observed: “What had been lush monte [bush] was now a gaunt spectre of dead trees.
The air stunk with the smell of rotten eggs.
There was no sign or sound of animal, bird or insect life…It smelled and looked like I imagined hell might look and smell.”
The oilfields opened up by this catastrophe were so prolific and profitable that they became known, apparently without irony, as the “Golden Lane”.
As Keith Fisher shows in “A Pipeline Runs Through It”, a sprawling, painstakingly researched history of oil from the Palaeolithic era to the first world war, black gold has been as much a curse as a blessing for the people on whose land it has been found.
Oil has always been a dirty business, both literally and metaphorically.
Mr Fisher begins with a slightly plodding survey of the uses found in bygone eras for the different kinds of oil that seeped from the ground.
It was an adhesive for toolmaking, a waterproofing agent for boats and roofs, a medicinal cure and a lubricant.
The Byzantines chucked a napalm-like substance, known as Greek Fire, over the walls of besieged cities.
The book gets into its stride when it reaches the late 18th century.
Then the extirpation of Native American nations paved the way for the development, just over 50 years later, of the “oil region” of Pennsylvania and New York states.
It was there that large-scale industrialised oil production first occurred.
The soaring demand for oil was driven mainly by its use for lighting (after being refined into kerosene).
It burned cleaner, brighter and with less smell than other oils, such as those derived from coal or whales.
The oil rush began in 1859 along what became known as Oil Creek, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, when an entrepreneur called Edwin Drake became the first American to drill for oil successfully.
As wildcatters rushed to the region, small refineries started popping up all over the place.
Railway companies cashed in by providing the only route to market until pipelines, which required large amounts of capital, could be constructed.
Into this Wild East of desperate competition—and prices that fluctuated madly as capacity grew either too fast or too slowly—stepped John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil set out to control the industry through a process of “combination”, or monopolisation.
Such was Standard’s financial muscle and legislative clout that competitors sold it their assets before being driven out of business.
By controlling pipelines and refineries, Rockefeller could also dictate terms to producers.