STANDISH – Why are we drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico? We may be near the worst environmental disaster in recent history.

How did it come to this?

In 1859 the first commercial oil well was dug in Titusville, Pa. “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s workmen pounded 69 feet of iron pipe into shale rock to strike crude. At 20 barrels per day, this oil was refined into kerosene for lamps and lubricants for machinery. Gasoline was considered a waste product and dumped into rivers.

Ironically, that year also marked the first oil well fire, when a driller accidentally touched off Drake’s rig with an oil lamp.

There is no oil left in Pennsylvania to speak of.

While doing some genealogical research, my brother Ben discovered that two of our great-great-grandfathers were “oil pumpers” — in northwest Ohio of all places. Today, Toledo and its environs do not inspire images of gushing oil wells, but in the early 20th century this was a booming part of the United States. Think Rockefeller and Standard Oil of Ohio.

At the time, the nearby Lima oilfield was the largest ever discovered, at a whopping 300 million barrels. Geology Professor Mark J. Camp, whom I had the privilege of taking a class with long ago, has “written the book” on the obsolete Ohio oil industry for the “Images of America” series. It is full of old photographs of burning oil rigs and huge, lightning-struck storage tanks going up in black smoke.

Today, there are virtually no producing wells in northwest Ohio.

Like all “progress” in the United States, the oil industry went west. The results were stupefying. In 1901 a “gusher” was struck in Beaumont, Texas, that changed the world forever. It would flow 100,000 barrels a day, thus producing in a few years what the Lima, Ohio, field would produce over its whole lifetime. But what to do with all this oil?

Enter the internal combustion engine — and World War II. Suddenly, oil was the hot commodity. The stupendous East Texas field would make the United States into a superpower.

Producing between 6 billion and 7 billion barrels of oil over its lifetime, this field both won the war and launched the automobile industry, setting us on course to become the commute-to-the-suburbs people we are today. Texas oil quite literally let the good times roll.

Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California — oil in the United States seemed as endless as our fervor to grow. Along came geophysicist Marion King Hubbert in 1956 to throw water onto this fire. As industry analysts continually worried that oil would “run out,” Hubbert hypothesized that oil would not just “run out,” it would instead “max out,” then perpetually decline.

To test this hypothesis, he did what scientists do, he made a prediction: He projected that the rate of oil extraction in the Lower 48 would max out sometime around 1970 and then decline.

The U.S. produced a record 10 million barrels a day briefly in 1970 — which is just over what Saudi Arabia produces today — then began to decline. Surely the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska, an even larger field than East Texas, would allow this record to be breached.

It was not to be so. Hubbert was right. Today the United States produces half the oil it produced then. And yet consumption of oil in the United States has nearly doubled in that time.

Naturally, one would think that “something would be done” about this predicament.

In a remarkable coincidence, another geology professor of mine, Craig Bond Hatfield, began to publicize Hubbert’s findings with articles in Nature magazine, The Washington Post and other national outlets. He even had the honor of presenting updated ideas about Hubbert’s thesis at the prestigious Gordon Research Conferences.

He argued that worldwide oil production would max out by the second decade of the 21st century. It seemed either no one listened or no one cared, for it was business as usual in the United States. Hatfield quietly retired in 1999.

When I interviewed him a few years ago to ask why he hadn’t published anything recently, given all the press about oil prices, what he said was shocking: “It’s too late.”

So now we’re drilling far out into the Gulf of Mexico. As ecologist William Catton might say, we’re at the end of a limb, and we’re busily sawing it off.


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