The Price of Gas

Along old US Route 66 in West Hollywood

It’s so high! How can people do anything? Yet shouldn’t we want the price of gas to be high, so we don’t cook up the planet quite as fast? Though, won’t the high prices cause estimates and spreadsheets and algorithms across the oil and gas companies to be adjusted? When the calculations are revised, it suddenly makes sense to drill more and deeper and in crazier ways in more chaotic countries? They’ll capitalize new and more projects, dredging up our oil faster than ever.

Is this merely the boom and bust cycle we all must toil under, written many times over in the history of every boomtown and oil craze? From Nantucket to Houston to the Bakken to Bakersfield to Alaska we are told this story. Above LA looms the Getty, named for a man whose father left Minnesota for a boom in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The son took the lesson and was early in on Saudi Arabia. To get to the Getty from here you’d have to cross Doheny, he of Teapot Dome. But look, you saw the oil wells when you came in from the airport (in a car), and if you looked out the window of your plane as you landed at LAX you saw the diesel tankers and maybe even an oil tanker filling up at the offshore spigot. You get the idea.

Not so long ago I watched the documentary version of The Prize in small chunks, just before bed. Though the content can be bracing it is soothingly narrated by Donald Sutherland, and there is something relaxing about seeing how the pieces fit together. Finding the doc compelling I read Daniel Yergin’s original book, which is full of great characters and strange scenes:

In early March 1983 the oil ministers and their retinues hurriedly convened, ironically in London, the home court of their leading non-OPEC competitor, Great Britain.  They met at the Intercontinental Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, for what turned out to be twelve interminable, frustrating days – an experience that would leave some of them with an allergic reaction whenever, in future years, they set foot inside the hotel. 

and:

Later in the day, Silva Herzog was glumly eating a hamburger at the Mexican embassy, preparing to leave, when a call came from the United States Treasury saying that the $100 million fee had been rescinded.  The Americans could not risk a collapse.  Who knew what the effects would be on Monday?  And with that, the Mexican Weekend concluded, with the first part of the emergency package now in place.  

Some takeaways of value:

  • it’s not just the getting of the oil. It’s the refining. Rockefeller controlled the refining, and the shipping, and eventually everything
  • one of Rockefeller’s killer qualities: he was a visionary accountant. Can there be such a thing? Yes. Rockefeller.
  • The Great War, later World War One, was a gamechange for oil.  Railroads had been key in the US Civil War, but in World War One, the tank and the truck, oil powered vehicles, proved to be the crucial transport.  Churchill, head of the Admiralty at the time, switched the Royal Navy to oil from coal.  At the end of the war, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire left the British and French in control of oil fields in Mesopotamia.
  • both on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific in World War Two, oil was the key strategic factor. Really everywhere, but those offer clear examples. Decisions on how to invade the Soviet Union were based on gaining control of oil fields before the German forces ran out of oil. The Japanese navy’s decisions were bounded by limits on oil. The fleet had to be stationed near Singapore. The “Marianas turkey shoot” was a result of decisions made based on saving oil. There was not enough oil not only for active operations, but for pilot training.

How about this?:

When [J. Paul] Getty died in 1976, age eighty-three, the eulogy at his funeral was delivered by the Duke of Bedford.  “When I think of Paul,” said the Duke, “I think of money.” 

Many people and groups of people have attempted to control oil, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes the board gets reshuffled: North Sea oil fields, Saudi, Alaska.  The North Sea oil fields saved the UK economy. Or did it ruin the UK economy? It saved Margaret Thatcher. You can’t send ships and helicopters to the coast of Argentina if you don’t have oil.

Look how rich Norway is. It doesn’t have to be this way, Norway used to be poor, that’s why Rose on Golden Girls is from St. Olaf.

Obama’s presidency coincided with a huge boom in US oil extraction. Is “coincided” the right word? Was it a coincidence? What’s at work here?

A character worth some study: Marcus Samuel. (Shell, the first oil tanker, Lord Mayor of London).

It was called Shell because his Iraqi Jewish family used to import and sell seashells. (That’s the story, anyway.)

Here’s a solid summary of The Prize.

Recall that Moby-Dick is about the oil business, and Ahab like Daniel Plainview is an oilman.



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