How Big Oil Conquered The World

Video Documentary

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© Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

From farm to pharmaceutical, diesel truck to dinner plate, pipeline to plastic product, it is impossible to think of an area of our modern-day lives that is not affected by the oil industry. The story of oil is the story of the modern world.

And this is the story of those who helped shape that world, and how the oil-igarchy they created is on the verge of monopolizing life itself.

TRANSCRIPT

Oil. From farm to pharmaceutical, diesel truck to dinner plate, pipeline to plastic product, it is impossible to think of an area of our modern-day lives that is not affected by the petrochemical industry. The story of oil is the story of the modern world.

Parts of that story are well-known: Rockefeller and Standard Oil; the internal combustion engine and the transformation of global transport; the House of Saud and the oil wars in the Middle East.

Other parts are more obscure: the quest for oil and the outbreak of World War I; the petrochemical interests behind modern medicine; the Big Oil money behind the “Green Revolution” and the “Gene Revolution.”

But that story, properly told, begins somewhere unexpected. Not in Pennsylvania with the first commercial drilling operation and the first oil boom, but in the rural backwoods of early 19thcentury New York state. And it doesn’t start with crude oil or its derivatives, but a different product altogether: snake oil.

“Dr. Bill Livingston, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” was the very image of the traveling snake oil salesman. He was neither a doctor, nor a cancer specialist; his real name was not even Livingston. More to the point, the “Rock Oil” tonic he pawned was a useless mixture of laxative and petroleum and had no effect whatsoever on the cancer of the poor townsfolk he conned into buying it.

He lived the life of a vagabond, always on the run from the last group of people he had fooled, engaged in ever more outrageous deceptions to make sure that the past wouldn’t catch up with him. He abandoned his first wife and their six children to start a bigamous marriage in Canada at the same time as he fathered two more children by a third woman. He adopted the name “Livingston” after he was indicted for raping a girl in Cayuga in 1849.

When he wasn’t running away from them or disappearing for years at a time, he would teach his children the tricks of his treacherous trade. He once bragged of his parenting technique: “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.”

A towering man of over six feet and with natural good looks that he used to his advantage, he went by “Big Bill.” Others, less generously, called him “Devil Bill.” But his real name was William Avery Rockefeller, and it was his son, John D. Rockefeller, who would go on to found the Standard Oil monopoly and become the world’s first billionaire.

The world we live in today is the world created in “Devil” Bill’s image. It’s a world founded on treachery, deceit, and the naivety of a public that has never wised up to the parlor tricks that the Rockefellers and their ilk have been using to shape the world for the past century and a half.

This is the story of the oiligarchy.

PART ONE: BIRTH OF THE OIL-IGARCHY

Titusville, 1857. A most unlikely man alights from a railway car into the midst of this sleepy Western Pennsylvania town on the shores of Oil Creek: “Colonel” Edwin Drake. He’s from the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, and he’s here on a mission: to collect oil.

Like “Dr.” Bill, Drake isn’t really a Colonel. The title is bestowed on him by George Bissell and James Townsend, a lawyer and a banker who started the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company after they discovered they could distill the region’s naturally occurring Seneca oil into lamp oil, or kerosene. Drake is actually an unemployed railroad conductor who talked himself into a job after staying at the same hotel as Bissel the year before. Calling him a Colonel, it is hoped, will help win the respect of the locals.

The locals think he’s crazy anyway. Seneca oil is indeed plentiful, bubbling out of seeps and collecting in the creek, but other than as a cure-all medicine or grease for the local sawmill’s machinery, it’s hardly seen as something valuable. In fact, it can be a downright nuisance, contaminating brine wells that supply Pittsburgh’s booming salt industry.

Still, Drake has a task to complete: finding a way to collect enough oil to make the distillation of Seneca oil into lamp oil profitable. He tries everything he can think of. The Native Americans had historically collected the oil by damming the creek near a seep and skimming the oil off the top. But Drake can only collect six to ten gallons of oil a day this way, even when he opens up extra seeps. He tries digging a shaft, but the groundwater floods in too quickly.

By the summer of 1859 he’s desperate. Drake’s running out of ideas, Bissell and Townsend are running out of patience and, most importantly, the company is running out of funds. He turns to “Uncle” Billy Smith, a Pittsburgh blacksmith who had experience drilling brine wells with steam-powered equipment. They get to work drilling down through the shale bedrock to reach the oil. It’s maddeningly slow work, with the crude equipment struggling to get through three feet of bedrock a day. By August 27th they’ve drilled down 69 and a half feet, Drake has used the last of his funds, and Bissell and his partners have decided to close up the operation. On August 28th, they strike oil.

Narrator: Then on Sunday, August 28th, 1859, oil bubbled up the drive pipe. Uncle Billy and his son Sam bailed out several buckets of oil. On Monday, the very day that Colonel Drake received his final payment and an order to close down the operation, they hitched the walking beam to a water pump and the oil began to flow. The first oil was to sell for $40 a barrel. Years later a local newspaper interviewed Uncle Billy about the day they struck oil:

“I commenced drilling and at 4:00 I struck the oil. I says to Mr. Drake, ‘Look there! What do you think of this?’ He looked down the pipe and said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘That is your fortune!’”

Drake’s well proved that by drilling for it, oil could be found in abundance and produced cheaply. Overnight a whole new industry was born. Before long in millions of homes, farms and factories around the world, lamps would be lit with kerosene refined from West Pennsylvania crude.

Daniel Yergin: When the word came out that Drake had struck oil, the cry went up throughout the narrow valleys of Western Pennsylvania: ‘The crazy Yankee has struck oil! The crazy Yankee has struck oil!’ And it was the first great boom. It was like a gold rush.

SOURCE: The Prize (Part 1)

Overnight the quiet farming backwoods of rural Pennsylvania was transformed into a bustling oil region, with prospectors leasing up flats, towns springing up from nowhere, and a forest of percussion rigs covering the land. The first oil boom had arrived.

Already poised to make the most of this boom was a young up-and-coming bookkeeper in Cleveland with a head for numbers: John Davison Rockefeller. He had two ambitions in life: to make $100,000 and to live to 100 years old. John D. set off to make his fortune in the late 1850s, armed with a $1000 loan from his father, “Devil” Bill.

David Rockefeller: Grandfather never finished high school and went to Cleveland having borrowed $1000 from his father to start a business — paid 9% interest on it incidentally. And he read about the oil business just beginning and got interested, and came to realize it was a very volatile business at the time.

SOURCE: The Prize Part 1

In 1863, seeing the oil boom and sensing the profits to be made in the fledgling business, Rockefeller formed a partnership with fellow businessman Maurice B. Clark and Samuel Andrews, a chemist who had built an oil refinery but knew little about the business of getting his product to market. In 1865 the shrewd John D. bought out his partners for $72,500 and, with Andrews as partner, launched Rockefeller & Andrews. By 1870, after five years of strategic partnerships and mergers, Rockefeller had incorporated Standard Oil.

The story of the rise of Standard Oil is an oft-told one.

Narrator: In a move that would transform the American economy, Rockefeller set out to replace a world of independent oilmen with a giant company controlled by him. In 1870, begging bankers for more loans, he formed Standard Oil of Ohio. The next year, he quietly put what he called “our plan” — his campaign to dominate the volatile oil industry — into devastating effect. Rockefeller knew that the refiner with the lowest transportation cost could bring rivals to their knees. He entered into a secret alliance with the railroads called the South Improvement Company. In exchange for large, regular shipments, Rockefeller and his allies secured transport rates far lower than those of their bewildered competitors.

Ida Tarbell, the daughter of an oil man, later remembered how men like her father struggled to make sense of events: “An uneasy rumor began running up and down the Oil Regions,” she wrote. “Freight rates were going up. … Moreover … all members of the South Improvement Company — a company unheard of until now — were exempt. … Nobody waited to find out his neighbor’s opinion. On every lip there was but one word and that was ‘conspiracy.’”

Ron Chernow, Biographer: By 1879, when Rockefeller is 40, he controls 90 percent of the oil refining in the world. Within a few years, he will control 90 percent of the marketing of oil and a third of all of the oil wells. So this very young man controls what is not only a national but an international monopoly in a commodity that is about to become the most important strategic commodity in the world economy.

SOURCEThe Rockefellers

By the 1880s, the American oil industry was the Standard Oil Company. And Standard Oil was John D. Rockefeller.

But it wasn’t long until a handful of similarly ambitious (and well-connected) families began to emulate the Standard Oil success story in other parts of the globe.

One such competitor emerged from the Caucasus in the 1870s, where Imperial Russia hadopened up the vast Caspian Sea oil deposits to private development. Two families quickly combined forces to take advantage of the opportunity: the Nobels, led by Ludwig Nobel and including his dynamite-inventing prize-creating brother Alfred, and the French branch of the infamous Rothschild banking dynasty, led by Alphonse Rothschild.

In 1891, the Rothschilds contracted with M. Samuel & Co., a Far East shipping company headquartered in London and run by Marcus Samuel, to do what had never been done before: ship their Nobel-supplied Caspian oil through the Suez Canal to East Asian markets. The project was immense; it involved not only sophisticated engineering to construct the first oil tankers to be approved by the Suez Canal Company, but the strictest secrecy. If word of the endeavour was to get back to Rockefeller through his international intelligence network it would risk bringing the wrath of Standard Oil, which could afford to cut rates and squeeze them out of the market. In the end they succeeded, and the first bulk tanker, the Murex, sailed through the Suez Canal in 1892 en route to Thailand.

In 1897 “M. Samuel & Co.” became The Shell Transport and Trading Company. Realizing that reliance on the Rothschild/Nobel Caspian oil left the company vulnerable to supply shocks, Shell began to look to the Far East for other sources of oil. In Borneo they ran up against Royal Dutch Petroleum, established in The Hague in 1890 with the support of King William III of the Netherlands to develop oil deposits in the Dutch East Indies. The two companies, fearing competition from Standard Oil, merged in 1903 into the Asiatic Petroleum Company, jointly owned with the French Rothschilds, and in 1907 become Royal Dutch Shell.

Another global competitor to the Standard Oil throne emerged in Iran at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901 millionaire socialite William Knox D’arcy negotiated an incredible concessionwith the king of Persia: exclusive rights to prospect for oil throughout most of the country for 60 years. After 7 years of fruitless search, D’Arcy and his Glasgow based partner, Burmah Oil, were ready to abandon the country altogether. In early May of 1908 they sent a telegram to their geologist telling him to dismiss his staff, dismantle his equipment and come back home. He defied the order and weeks later struck oil.

Burmah Oil promptly spun off the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to oversee production of Persian oil. The British government took 51% majority control of the company’s shares in 1914 at the behest of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and survives today as BP.

The Rothschilds and Nobels. The Dutch royal family. The Rockefellers. These early titans of the oil industry and their corporate shells pioneered a new model for amassing and expanding fortunes hitherto unheard of. They were the scions of a new oligarchy, one built around oil and its control, from wellhead to pump.

But it was not just about money. The monopolization of this, the key energy resource of the 20th century, helped secure the oiligarchs not just wealth but power over the lives of billions. Billions who came to depend on black gold for the provision of just about every aspect of their daily lives.

In the late 19th century, however, it was by no means certain that oil would become the key resource of the 20th century. As cheap illumination from the newly-commercialized light bulb began to destroy the market for lamp oil, the oiligarchs were on the verge of losing the value from their monopoly. But a series of “lucky strikes” was about to catapult their fortunes even further.

The very next year after the commercial introduction of the light bulb, another invention came along to save the oil industry: German engineer Karl Benz patented a reliable, two-stroke internal combustion engine. The engine ran on gasoline, another petroleum byproduct, and became the basis for the Benz Motorwagen that, in 1888, became the first commercially available automobile in history. And with that stroke of luck, the business that Rockefeller and the other oiligarchs had spent decades consolidating was saved.

But more luck was needed to ensure the market for this new engine. In the early days of the automobile era it was by no means certain that gas-powered cars would come to dominate the market. Working models of electric vehicles had been around since the 1830s, and the first electric car was built in 1884. By 1897 there was a fleet of all-electric taxis shuttling passengers around London. The world land speed record was set by an electric car in 1898. By the dawn of the 20th century electric cars accounted for 28% of the automobiles in the United States. The electrics had advantages over the internal combustion engine: they required no gear shifting or hand cranking, and had none of the vibration, smell, or noise associated with gasoline-powered cars.

Lady Luck intervened again on January 10, 1901, when prospectors struck oil at Spindletop in East Texas. The gusher blew 100,000 barrels a day and set off the next great oil boom, providing cheap, plentiful oil to the American market and driving down gas prices. It wasn’t long before the expensive, low range electric engines were abandoned altogether and big, loud, gas-guzzling engines came to dominate the road, all fueled by the black gold that Standard Oil, Shell, Gulf, Texaco, Anglo-Persian and the other oil majors of the time were drilling, refining and selling.

Perhaps John D.’s greatest stroke of luck, however, was not supposed to be luck at all. Rockefeller had come under increasing scrutiny by a public outraged by the unprecedented wealth he had amassed through Standard Oil. Muckraking reporters like Ida Tarbell began digging up the dirt on his rise to power through railroad conspiracies, secret deals with competitors and other shady practices. The press pictured him as a colossus with bribed politicians literally in the palm of his hand; Standard Oil was a menacing octopus with its tentacles strangling the lifeblood of the nation. Hearings began, investigations were launched, lawsuits were brought against him. And then, finally, in 1911 the Supreme Court made a monumental decision.

Narrator: On May 15th, 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that Standard Oil was a monopoly in restraint of trade and should be dissolved. Rockefeller heard of the decision while golfing at Kykuit with a priest from the local Catholic church, Father J.P. Lennon.

Ron Chernow, Biographer: And Rockefeller reacted with amazing aplomb. He turned to the Catholic priest and said, “Father Lennon, have you some money?” And the priest was very startled by the question and said, “No.” And then he said, “Why?” And Rockefeller replied, “Buy Standard Oil.”

Narrator: As Rockefeller foresaw, the individual Standard Oil companies were worth more than the single corporation. In the next few years, their shares doubled and tripled in value. By the time the rain of cash was over, Rockefeller had the greatest personal fortune in history — nearly two percent of the American economy.

Ron Chernow, Biographer: And it was really losing the antitrust case that converted John D. Rockefeller into history’s first billionaire. So that Standard Oil was punished in the federal antitrust case, but John D. Rockefeller, Sr. most assuredly was not.

SOURCEThe Rockefellers

To the amazement of the world, Rockefeller’s punishment had in fact been his reward. Rather than being taken down a peg, the splitting up of the Standard Oil monopoly had launched him as the world’s only acknowledged billionaire at a time when the average annual income in America was $520.

Rockefeller’s story was perfectly mirrored by the story of Colonel Edwin Drake. Having struck oil in Titusville and given rise to a billion dollar global industry, Drake had not had the foresight to patent his drilling technique or even to buy up the land around his own well. He ended up in poverty, relying on an annuity from the state of Pennsylvania to scrape together a living and dying in 1880.

For the oiligarchy, the lesson of the rise and rise of Rockefeller was obvious: the more ruthlessly that monopoly was pursued, the tighter that control was grasped, the greater the lust for power and money, the greater the reward would be in the end.

From now on, no invention would derail the oil majors from their quest for total control. No competition would be tolerate