By Alan Caruba
I have spent the better part of the day writing about energy issues. One can chart history in many ways, wars being the most dramatic, but it is energy that largely determined what civilizations rose to prominence and which, today, bestride the earth.
At first there was only human energy. If something was to be done, it required sweat. Tools were invented to facilitate various tasks. Then came animals. They were domesticated for farming and, in the case of horses, for travel. Wind facilitated sailing for a very long time. In time came coal, steam, and electricity, but the most phenomenal of all was the energy unleashed from oil.
A new movie gaining lots of plaudits is “There Will Be Blood”, based on a book published in 1927. So what we are seeing is the viewpoint of a man, Upton Sinclair, from just over eighty years ago. A lot can change in eighty years, but one thing that hasn’t is the demagoguery the oil industry has always occasioned in American news media, literature, and films.
Sinclair’s book was about the early days of the California oil industry and featured a cast of characters that includes oil magnates, senators, Hollywood film starlets, and a crusading evangelist. It is widely regarded as a classic story of greed and corruption.
In the current edition of The Economist, a columnist known only as Lexington, wrote, “Flagellating the oil business is one of America’s proudest traditions. Ida Tarbell, the greatest of the muckraking journalists, accused Standard Oil of building its empire on ‘fraud, deceit, special privilege, gross illegality, bribery, coercion, corruption, intimidations, espionage or outright terror.’ Upton Sinclair demonized the oil barons in his 1927 novel, ‘Oil!’.”
Lexington notes that, “Today bookshop shelves are crammed with tomes denouncing the Bush oil dynasty, or predicting that America’s dependence on oil will bring environmental Armageddon.”
As both a writer on energy issues and a longtime book reviewer, I can attest to the truth of the latter. There are books devoted to the belief, “Peak Oil”, that the earth is running out of oil when there is no evidence whatever of that. The war in Iraq is often attributed to America’s oil needs.
Some people think Exxon Mobil owns most of the world’s oil reserves when, in fact, its holdings are a mere 1.08% of the world’s oil reserves. Combined with the other publicly owned major oil companies, that figure rises only to 4%. It no more determines the cost of a barrel of oil, a global commodity, than I do.
It is fashionable to denigrate Big Oil and “There Will Be Blood” will continue the myths surrounding the industry, but remember that you are watching an 80-year-old perspective on an industry without which every single car, truck, tractor, combine, and other vehicle dependent on the internal combustion engine would come to a stop.