Oil Boom and Bust

In 1957 Oklahomans planted a large time capsule on the grounds of the Tulsa county courthouse with instructions that it be opened in 2007 to celebrate the state’s centennial. The principal object in the sealed vault was a Plymouth Belvedere. Unfortunately the time capsule proved not to be waterproofed. Instead of recovering a mint relic, the car proved to be a rusting wreck.

While Tulsans were naturally downhearted at the unveiling, there was a sadder spectacle that was generally overlooked. Placed on the car seat were jugs of gasoline.

Back in 1957, the far-sighted planners reasoned that, within the next 50 years, automobiles might no longer be powered by gasoline. The jugs of gasoline ensured the car could be operated in the distant future when gas stations might have all disappeared.

There was no need to worry. The gas stations are still around. We’re just as dependent on oil as ever. The only change is that America had moved away from leaded gasoline.

America occupied a highly enviable position in the post-war world. Its cities and businesses had emerged whole and hearty from the war. Its infrastructure hadn’t been wrecked by bombings and sabotage. We had the only intact economy in the Western world, and plenty of oil. There was little interest in conserving fuel now, especially with articles like “Now We Have Plenty of Oil,” which appeared in the Post in 1950.

“Turn up the oil burner. Fill the gas tank, the cigarette lighter, the kerosene range. Order a new diesel locomotive, a jar of cold cream, a jet plane, and make free with petroleum products any way you fancy. Forget that rumor you heard just a few years back—the one that predicted that we would shortly run out of oil and into calamity. It was not true. There is oil in quantity under American soil. Having had less than a hundred years to regularize its cycles, the calendar of perpetual petroleum alarm and reassurance is not yet as accurate as a barometer, but at this points it reads calm, comfort and all the gasoline you want. The next cycle of worry over oil shortage may be a decade or more away, to be followed no doubt by surplus, to be followed no doubt by shortage, to be —

“Anyway, right now oil is easy, and this should be a powerful load off the national mind. The importance of whether or not we have enough oil in America grows greater every year.

“… perhaps it is permissible to point out that the record of oil ups and downs is at least odd, if not downright hilarious. No decade has passed in the present century without some authority writing off our oil future as failing and soon doomed. Crankcases today are full of oil that was once seriously described as nonexistent.

“Take the notable warning of 1919, when the chief geologist of the United States Geological Survey flatly predicted complete oil exhaustion in this country by 1936. Or the comparatively recent fright of former Secretary of the Interior Ickes in 1943, who solemnly divided known oil reserves by consumption and pointed out that we had a supply good for only fourteen years.”

The writer spoke of unlimited oil, and new fields of crude that had recently been located in Texas. What he failed to tell readers was that, since four years earlier, the United States was starting to consume more oil than it could produce domestically. As early as 1946, we were losing our energy independence.

Even so, the confident tone could still be heard in 1962. In that year, another Post article, “The Oil of the Arab,” addressed the rising nationalism of Arab nations, which were providing us with most of our gasoline. He quoted Sheik Abdullah H. Taliki, Saudi Arabia director of oil:

“’Allah made nothing without cause,’ he says. ‘He made the great desserts that are useless to man. But he buried oil beneath them. It is Arab oil. It must be used for the Arab’s benefit. Today others can use our oil to further their interests, which may not coincide with ours.’

“The oil, buried in a great basin that stretches from the southern slopes of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains to the shores of the Arabian Sea, and from Iran’s eastern borders to Saudi Arabia’s western shore, constitutes what is probably the world’s greatest reservoir of mineral wealth. Reserves estimated at 181,000,000,000 barrels, two thirds of the free world’s known oil supply, have already been discovered; millions of square miles, on land in the waters of the Persian Gulf, remain to be explored. Tiny Kuwait, a sun-parched desert little bigger than Connecticut, has proven reserves of 62,000,000,000 barrels, exceeding the total reserves of North and South America combined.  Beneath the dunes and bare gravel plains of Saudi Arabia lie 50,000,000,000 barrels more. Iraq has 25,000,000,000 barrels in reserve, Iran 35,000,000,000.

“The total reserves in the United States are estimated at 33,500,000,000.

“’Some day,’ he says, ‘we will unite. Once we are strong enough to shut down all the wells, and close the Suez Canal and shut off the pipelines—even if only for a few days—the companies will suddenly see a great light. The world cannot live without the Mideast’s oil.'”

Well, it was easy for the author to see why the Arabs would never succeed in exerting its power.

“The weakness in Mr. Tariki’s position lies in the fact that at the moment there is more oil available than the world can use…”

The Common Wealth of Oil

Life was good for the oil industry in the 1920s. The demand for gasoline was soaring, thanks to booming automobile sales. In 1910, there were 458,000 vehicles on America’s roads; ten years later there were 8 million and, by 1930, the number 23 million — all thirsty for gasoline.

In boom times like these, oil companies had little time, and scant interest, in planning. As a Post writer observed in 1929,

“Authorities all agree that the United States has developed and produced its oil too rapidly… For ten years now, despite the increasing multiplicity of its uses, oil has been found faster than it could be consumed. All the time there has been more of it above ground than the market demanded. [“Taming Wild Oil Wells,” Oct 19, 1929]

“The presence of too much of any commodity leads inevitably to its waste… The record of all time for the waste of a national resource has been broken in the past decade in the oil fields of the United States.

“In the state of California, for example, it is estimated that the loss of natural gas alone has been sufficient to have paid off the national debt.

“Of the oil that is in [the typical oil pool], it is believed that not more than 20 per cent is usually recovered before the flow ceases.

“In the interest of prolonging the life of the field, no gas should be allowed to blow off at random or before its full quota of work has been performed. Gas which cannot otherwise be used obviously should be pumped back into the ground so that the life of the field may be prolonged.

“Finding that they owned land over an oil dome, its possessors…  should have agreed to develop the field as a unit and split the returns in proportion to their holdings.”

They “should have” agreed, but they didn’t. Instead, the industry kept drilling for quick oil, taking the crude that natural gas pushed to the surface, left the more difficult oil, and natural gas, behind.

Oil companies showed no signs of moderating themselves, and critics were beginning to wonder how it would all end.

“In view of the now familiar oil over-production, with its unnecessary drain on the natural reserve, the question of future supply become increasingly acute. People are beginning to wonder if the carriage manufacturer is coming back to his former prestige, and whether the faded letters “L-i-v-e-r-y  S-t-a-b-l-e,” now supplanted by the more aesthetic “G-a-r-a-g-e,” on endless buildings, will have to be restored. Is a nation on wheels, as it were, going back to the hoof so far as daily transport is concerned?” [“After Petroleum — What?” Isaac F. Marcosson, March 3, 1928 (PDF)]

“There is more truth than idle speculation in this surmise. Although it may be postponed longer than we think, the time is inevitable when we shall be obliged to depend for motor fuel on imported crude or a synthetic liquid distilled from coal, lignite or shale.

“How much oil is left in the ground for our future needs? Like every other features of the business, this is uncertain. All predictions so far have been in error.

“As recently as 1921, statisticians maintained that our domestic output would be at its peak when 500,00,000 barrels were obtained. Yet last year… we produced 900,00,000 barrels. Despite the pessimism, the supply of oil proved greater than anyone could have predicted.

“The wells drilled during the last three years have already yielded considerably more than 1,000,000,000 barrels of oil and their productive life is still largely in the future. This makes the total reserve from all proved sources nearly 80,000,000,000 barrels. At the 1927 rate of production, this would last thirty-three years.”

They were off by a decade; as you can see from the graph below, domestic production began falling in 1970, while imported oil rose sharply to cover the difference.

Not knowing when the easy oil would give out, critics repeatedly called for conserving oil — long before there were any environmental considerations.

One of the strongest proponents for conservation was former governor and Director of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. He fiercely opposed the unrestrained drilling for oil on federal lands. Conservation, he argued, was essential to the public interest. The restraint of one generation would be the inheritance of the next.

“The conservation policy grew out of the idea that public resources held in the public hands should not be wasted, but be made to serve the public to the utmost, both in the present and in the future. [“Ships, Oil and the Ten Commandments,” May 17, 1924]

This chart shows how sharply oil imports rose as domestic production fell. (Wikipedia Commons)

“It was introduced to the people of the United States through the meeting of governors in the White House in 1908 — the first meeting of its kind in American history, and by far the greatest — and met with instant general approbation.

“This was the more remarkable because it was then commonly believed and openly asserted that, since posterity had done nothing for us, we had no reason to do aught for posterity. Let posterity paddle its own canoe. This theory conveniently forgot that our ancestors gave us the only canoe we have to paddle; that they discovered and conquered for us our continent; that they founded and preserved for us our nation; that we, who are their posterity, are living our safe and reasonably comfortable lives because of what they did for us who came after them; and that the only way we can pay our debt to them is to play fair in our turn with those who will come after us.

“From the beginning, conservation has meant wise use in the public interest, and it means wise use today. This generation has a right to all it needs, but no right whatever to waste what it does not need. Our children have their rights as well as we. If there was ever a policy since this world began that was simple, sound and filled with common sense, it is the policy of conservation.”

Read “After Petroleum — What?” Isaac F. Marcosson, March 3, 1928 [PDF]
Next: Teapot Dome

America’s Century of Oil Problems

When an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, it produced an oil spill of roughly one million barrels of oil. It also created a tidal wave of finger-pointing, blame-flinging, and political grandstanding — the predictable events of any American disaster.

Naturally the event prompted me to look through the archives for past reports about the oil industry. I found scores of stories on the subject spanning the past century. Taken altogether, these articles present a story of America’s troubled relationship with oil and its producers.

As early as 1908, for example, the Post was criticizing Standard Oil, particularly its Vice President John D. Archbold who announced his company would be more vocal in defending its reputation.

“It was entirely unnecessary for Mr. Archbold to urge upon his readers that the Standard Oil trust is a powerful and successful commercial organization, or that it has adopted many useful and important economies in the conduct of its extensive and diversified business.

“But his denial of the often repeated charge that the business success of the Standard Oil Trust has been largely contributed to by unlawful special favors from railroad companies can hardly be accepted as conclusive, contradicted as it is by testimony in numerous cases and investigations. And when the amount and frequency of these special privileges, which have been conclusively proven to exist, are considered, the statement is clearly justified that the ability of the Standard Oil trust to defeat competition and achieve its remarkable success has been due to illegal privileges from railroad companies more than to any other one cause.

“It has been proven that during the early period of its existence it had contracts with railroad companies by which it secured a rebate of from 10% to 68% on the published tariffs of the roads on all oil that it shipped. This would have been an advantage over competitors that would have satisfied the avarice of most people. But not the geniuses of the Standard Oil Trust. They demanded and received the same amount as a rebate upon the shipments of their competitors, who were compelled to pay the full tariff rate by the railroads.”

Historically, the Post was a tireless cheerleader for development and business success. Throughout the 1920s, it  heaped praise on every prospering American industry. But it never lost an ambivalence toward the oil industry.

For example, Post writer Samuel G. Blythe rhapsodized over the oil industry’s accomplishments in 1930. He proudly announced America’s oil production:

“The daily average oil output in the United States in 1929 was 3,196,000 barrels. Multiply that by 36, for oil wells, when they work, work every day. Thus we find that our total oil output in 1929 was 1,166,540,000 barrels. Almost one and one-sixth billions.”

“Oil is the giant of our national products… Oil is indispensible to our progress and prosperity. The use of it ramifies in nearly every commercial, manufacturing, distributing, motor, lubricative, heating and transport direction. It warms us and lights us. It runs our tractors and trucks and automobiles, pulls our passenger and freight trains on great railroad systems, propels our ships, whirls countless factory wheels, generates much of our power, fights our wars and flies our airplanes. The by-products of it are used in hundreds of utilitarian ways.”

Yet, at article’s end, Blythe drops his worshipful tone for one of stern warning against “the business idiocy of producing more than can be sold.” He encourages major oil-producing states to voluntarily curtail “wasteful and unneeded oil production.”

“the benefits have been clearly demonstrated. Oil can be conserved. Oil should be conserved, not because there isn’t plenty of oil but because it is sheer business lunacy not to recognize the imperative economic law of supply and demand.

“There is hope. Conservation will continue unless the oil producers are the biggest and greediest business jackasses the world has ever known.”

In a 1933 article, Harold Ickes, FDR’s new Secretary of the Interior, provided details about the wastefulness of oil exploration.

“One billion dollars is not an insignificant fortune even for the country that holds within its treasury most of the gold of the world. Yet the same people who would avidly scan tales of such a theft have permitted, practically unheeded, a loss in their oil resources amounting to much more than one billion dollars.

“We have suffered and are continuing to suffer stupendous losses in the exploitation of our oil resources. We are just as indifferent about oil as our forefather were about our forests, our plains and our streams. What if oil is being wasted? There will always be more oil; and even if it should, in time, give out, there will be plenty for our own needs in our own day. ‘May the devil take the hindmost’ is still sound American doctrine.

“I challenge any other present-day industry in the United States to show greater waste, inefficiency and mismanagement than seem to be inherent in the oil industry, whether of its own making or because of inadequate laws. These are grave charges, but they are less grave than the situation to which they relate.

The oil-drilling practices of the time, Ickes relates, encouraged drillers to grab up the easy oil, close to the surface, and leave behind the most costly oil.

“A quantity of oil on top can readily be skimmed off, and below, there is more oil clinging to rocklike sand, while still farther down in the lank there are coal and shale from which oil might be manufactured.

“If we drive a hole… a certain amount of the very cheapest oil will flow out naturally from the top. When the natural flow has ceased, it becomes necessary to install pumps in order to draw out the oil that remains stubbornly sticking to the rocklike sand. This makes the crude oil cost more. When this is gone it is now customary to abandon an oil field.

“But it may become necessary, expensive though the process will be, to go down and dig out the oil-saturated rock to wring from it oil which no pumps will bring up. It may even become necessary, at a still greater cost, to go to the bottom of our tank and dig out our coal and shale, from which, if the consumer will pay enough, it is possible to process motor fuels. “Already in many areas in the United States the cream from the top of the tank has been skimmed. The former great flush oil fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, New York and Indiana are gone.

“Millions upon millions of barrels of oil have been allowed to become bogged in the earth’s reaches, beyond cheap recovery, because of the loss of the driving pressure of the gas.

Natural gas, rich in caloric energy, was the force that pushed oil to the earth’s surface. But the oil companies were little interested in natural gas at first. Once they realized it could be just as valuable as oil, they made efforts to capture it at the well head, instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere. However many get-rich-quick operations didn’t spare the time and money to capture this gas, but just grabbed the easy oil. The energy-rich gas was simply discarded.

“In the Panhandle of Texas, 1,000,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day go utterly to waste. Expert engineers estimate that the loss of this gas means that from 400,000,000 to 500,000,000 barrels of easily recoverable crude oil will stick in the sands. This is a direct loss of crude oil sufficient to supply the entire nation for approximately six months.

“From 200,000,000 to 250,000,000 barrels of gasoline could have been made from that crude oil. Enough is being lost in that one field to fill up every car in the country more than forty times.

“A year’s output of that wasted gas — 365,000,000,000 cubic feet — represents as much heat energy as 62,634,000 barrels of fuel oil—enough to heat the average home 1,252,680 years, or, to turn it around, to heat 1,252,680 homes a year. The staggering total of 62,634,000 barrels of fuel oil is difficult for most of us to grasp. But it would heat every home in Cleveland for three years. Dallas, Texas has 83,000 homes, every one of which could be heated for 132 months. Likewise every home in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, Providence, Erie, Lansing, Topeka and Racine could be kept warm for a whole twelve months’ year, not just the winter season.

“Some of the early wells in Michigan were allowed to spew 18,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day, each, into the air. Visualize the worth of that gas if piped into Detroit or Lansing to make automobiles, or into Chicago for use as fuel. Just as a measuring rod, consider that our capital city of Washington consumes for domestic and industrial purposes approximately 7,000,000,000 cubic feet of gas a year.

“My own opinion is that if the oil industry cannot control its affairs in the public interest, then the Federal Government, of necessity and to protect all the people, must take a hand. This business of oil is so important to all of us that private control must promptly and drastically mend its ways. We must, as a people, have oil, and plenty of it, at reasonable prices from our own wells. We cannot continue recklessly to pour this precious resource over the whole world. One can almost hear the sardonic laughter of nations, jealous of our prestige and covetous of our wealth, as they watch our headlong course toward national bankruptcy in oil while they count every drop of their own hoarded stores of this precious mineral.”

Over the next forty years, critics kept up their demands that oil companies use less wasteful methods. The companies had little interest in the arguments until the 1970s. To be fair, the oil companies would have had little incentive to reduce waste in the early 20th Century. As far as they could see, there was a nearly unlimited wealth of inexpensive oil in the 1930s — far more than would ever be needed by America’s 26 Million cars and trucks. (The number of vehicles has grown 1,000% since then.)

In 1970, though, America’s supply of cheap oil began to disappear, and we became more reliant on foreign oil. Suddenly the industry was working hard to extract every bit of oil and gas at every well head. And, as the oil executives, critics, and politicians had expected, energy prices rose.

I’ll close the first part of this Retrospective with a nostalgic glimpse at historic gasoline prices.

Oh, those happy days.

Decade Avg. Gallon Price
1950s 19¢ – 26¢
1960s 31¢ – 35¢
1970s 36¢
1980s $1.00
1990s $1.10
2000s $1.65 – $4.00

Read “This Billion Barrel Oil Country” by Samuel G. Blythe [PDF].

Read “After the Oil Deluge, What Price Gasoline?” by Harold Ickes [PDF].


America’s Common Wealth of Energy: The Long Battle for Oil Conservation