The Drake Well

George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake sparked the immense success of the oil industry in 1859 when they constructed the first successful drilling rig to produce oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania (41). The creation of this well gave rise to the first large wave of investment in to the oil markets, drilling and refining. Throughout the Civil War, oil production spread over large parts of Pennsylvania and into western New York. The growth of the oil market quickly began replacing whale oil as an energy source for lamps, which greatly decreased the unsustainable whaling practices occurring in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans (1). Of course, the practice of drilling for oil is unsustainable in its own way. The oil rush began and the precious natural resource started being extracted at an exponentially increasing rate, with about 300 barrels a day being extracted from Drake’s Well at the start of production (30). One man who lived in the oil region of Pennsylvania, Edmund Morris, describes the different ways in which the land use and value began changing when oil was discovered in the area, “Of course these lands are not bought for farming purposes, but by speculators who hope to…develop them as oil territory. The lands are generally covered with valuable forests of choice oak, pine, hemlock, ash, chestnut, and poplar, and if purchasers do not realize their expectations in developing petroleum in profitable quantities, they can make a handsome thing by preparing lumber for market” (30). This quote represents how the land and it’s natural resources were valued strictly based on their monetary worth, and there was a common assumption that whoever owned a plot of land would extract whatever resources were present in order to make a profit, regardless of the impact on the environment or the finite amount of the resource being extracted.

With the rise of petroleum of course came the rise carbon emissions and green house gases in the atmosphere. Although these emissions were unknown at the time, the concept of climate change was already being discussed in 1868 by Lydia Maria Francis in a letter she wrote to her daughter, “To speak seriously, I do think our climate is changing. For many years I have noticed that winter extends farther into spring than it used to do when I was young. They say that tusks of ivory dug up in Onalaska prove that region to have once been in the tropical zone. If so, perhaps we also are steering for the North Pole” (9). The oil industry not only releases gases that are harmful to the environment, it also causes erosion, toxic runoff, and widespread habitat degradation (31).