My favorite movie is There Will Be Blood about an early 20th century oil man’s quest to beat out his competition at the cost of everything most people would find meaningful. One of the characters of the movie is the oil industry itself. I am constantly fascinated by the recreation of early drilling techniques, from manually scooping it out of a hole with a bucket to more efficient steam pumps that would just dump the oil into a field. All of this work would be extremely controversial due to its environmental impact by today’s standards.
The United States was once the world leader in oil production, with fields primarily in California and Texas. I remember seeing the pictures of field upon field with massive oil derricks erected, such as the one pictured. Yet, not even 100 years later, the legacy of the oil industry is dwindling. More importantly, the environmental impact is unnoticed. I mean, if you think about all the precautions that yesterday’s oil business did not have to take compared to today’s, you would have thought California and Texas would have become gigantic Chernobyl’s. Quite the contrary, as they are amongst the most desirable places to live in the country.
What lesson can we learn from our early oil days. The lesson is that the impact of such endeavors is actually minimal. And when you factor in today’s efficiencies and standards, it makes little sense as to why we make drilling so difficult in the United States. Places like Anwar and our Gulf coast are ripe for oil production. Instead, we push oil companies deep out into the ocean where drilling is risky, as we have seen this past year with the Gulf oil spill. But that is often how the law of unintended consequences goes.