The phrase of the last US president that is least missed today – and there are many candidates – may be the one celebrating ‘clean, beautiful coal’. Keith Fisher will probably not forgive me for saying that his new book brings to mind a similarly oxymoronic statement about oil. In his survey of every appearance of the stuff in world history and literature from the time of the Babylonians to the early 20th century – which reads like a grand Google Books search – we find ‘beautiful oil’ turning up everywhere, including in the writings of Herodotus and the poetry of Ovid. In pre-Columbian California, Native Americans used it to rainproof their humble houses; on Barbados, indigenous islanders relied on it as an ointment for sore limbs; Mexico’s Olmec peoples painted it onto religious statuary for decorative purposes. In pre-Islamic Persia, it may have been the source of a whole religion revolving around temples of perpetual fire, produced by steams of oil and gas seeping up from the ground. True, oil also makes plenty of appearances in this book as a weapon of war: the Byzantines employed it as part of a particularly lethal, ship-mounted flame-thrower (though lobbing burning oil-based projectiles at your enemies dates as far back as the Peloponnesian War). But it seems striking nonetheless that this substance – one associated with all that is ‘artificial’ in the modern industrial age – has always been a part of our extraordinary natural world.
Yet if this is the good in A Pipeline Runs Through It, everything that follows is very much the bad and the ugly. The modern, industrialised oil industry was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, pioneered by prospectors hoping to supply the growing demand for oil-burning lamps, which traditionally relied on whale oil. Fisher paints a brilliantly vivid picture of what this meant for western Pennsylvania’s idyllic natural environment. In the 1850s, Titusville was a quiet, backwoods place, its peace broken only ‘by the tapping of a woodpecker, the distant chopping and sawing of lumberjacks and … the whine of waterwheel- or steam-powered sawmills’. Once the Pennsylvanian oil rush took off, however, speculators descended on the area like ‘a plague of locusts’ and the whole valley soon resembled a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Uncontrolled wells shot oil into the streets and rivers, derricks appeared in every back yard, catastrophic fires broke out, the air reeked of gas and petroleum, and there was not a green thing anywhere in sight.
This chaotic new industry – which quickly rivalled that of cotton in terms of exports – was brought under control by an accountant from Cleveland, Ohio, John D Rockefeller. In 1870, Rockefeller created Standard Oil, and via various shady business practices and collusion with local legislators, succeeded in taking