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Whither the Oil Age? 150 years of black gold

The American age of oil began 150 years ago today. Or, if you prefer the phrasing of President George W. Bush, the U.S. addiction to oil can be traced back to the original pusher "Colonel" Edwin Drake who began producing oil from the first commercial well near Titusville, Pa., (about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh).

The rest is history—the automobile, plastics, modern agriculture and, of course, climate change. But it all started with the Colonel's 69-foot wooden well that ultimately yielded roughly 40 barrels a day. To put that in perspective, the world currently produces some 85 million barrels per day, which provide us with a full 40 percent of our energy.

The Titusville find kicked off the first oil boom (to be followed by similar booms in Texas, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Brazil) and left us with the enduring legacy of Pennzoil as well as the corporate children of the oil monopolies created by capitalist titans like John D. Rockefeller.

Today, oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron are known, among other things, for using their influence to oppose legislative efforts to control the carbon emissions linked to climate change (oil burning is high up in the list of human sources of excess carbon dioxide). And oil inspires geopolitical posturing (for example, embargoes and wars) that shapes modern history.

What's especially intriguing today is that Drake was inspired to drill his well by the high price of whale oil—the lighting fuel of choice back at the time. That high price was a result of dwindling supplies, as aggressive whaling had pushed many species to the brink of extinction.

And now we're doing the same thing with oil. Massive consumption by the U.S. and Europe, combined with growing consumption in China, India and the rest of the developing world, seems to be straining existing oil supplies. Oil price shocks are one result, and perhaps the end of cheap oil, or even what some call "peak oil" (when historic supplies crest and start to decline). In any case, the next question is: who will be the Edwin Drake of the 21st-century energy economy?

Image: © iStockphoto.com / Andrew Penner

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