EPA Warns of Oil Threat

It was late one hot summer afternoon, while reading about the history of oil in America: Drake’s Folly, the development of rotary drill rigs, the discovery of oil in Texas, when I began to succumb to the lazy afternoon heat and nod off, but was startled by news that had just reached Washington.

Word had reached Washington by telegraph that there had been a huge oil spill in Beaumont, Texas: An oil well had been drilled on a dome known as Spindletop, and oil was flowing unchecked from the well.

There was wild speculation at the EPA in Washington about the damage being done to the environment by the oil1.

Initial reports had 100,000 barrels of oil spewing from the well in a 150-foot high gusher, with oil, literally raining back to earth. People, animals and valuable land were being covered with the thick, black, smelly substance.

Spindletop January 10, 1901
Spindletop January 10, 1901

The head of the environmental protection agency was withholding her full views on this calamity, saying only that, “We will hold the people responsible for drilling this well. They will be held fully accountable. They will pay for all the damage done to the environment – and to our water supplies.”

Until now, the EPA had been concerned about the horse manure accumulating in the big cities such as New York, where the manure was being shoveled into the Hudson River and stored in six-foot high piles on empty lots.

The Mayor of New York was hoping that the new horseless vehicle might stem the increasing amount of manure and urine being produced by the ever enlarging population of horses2. He estimated there were nearly 200,000 horses in Brooklyn and New York, and that they produced over four million pounds of manure … every day.

One well-known activist had warned of the horse problem and said that “each horse consumed the product of five acres of land, a footprint which could have produced enough food to feed six people.”

In an interview for the New York Times, the Mayor spoke about the sweepers who were posted at street corners to sweep a path through the manure so people could cross the streets. He said, “These jobs will be lost if the horseless vehicle becomes prevalent, but citizens are tired of the stench – and flies, and filth caused by horses.”

He went on to say that the manure and urine turned to muck when it rained, but conditions were actually worse during dry weather when the muck dried out and turned to dust, whipped up and down the streets by wind, chocking pedestrians and coating buildings.

“Thousands die each year from the diseases carried by the flies, but it’s hard to know exactly how many die from these diseases because of the deaths from the heat and from spoiled food due to inadequate cooling by ice boxes.

The Mayor went on to say, “Every day we must get rid of 40 or more dead horses that have been abandoned by their owners. Some of these are allowed to decay so they are easier to cut up and move. I get letters about the bloated, dead horse in the streets, yet there is little we can do about it. After all, a horse can weigh 1,300 pounds.”

Two days later In Washington, the head of the EPA spoke to reporters.

She was asking their papers to get the story out quickly and hasten delivery of the news across the country.

She said, “This is the worst environmental disaster in our history. The Spindletop has spewed at least 300,000 barrels of oil onto the land around the well.

“I have asked for treasury department agents to be sent to Texas to investigate who was responsible. We will identify those who were responsible and insist that they restore the land to the same condition it was before the oil spill. They will pay.

“I have been told it will take at least a week to stop the flow of oil. A million barrels of oil could be spilled before this disaster is brought under control.

“The environment is too precious to allow this wanton, irresponsible drilling for oil to continue unchecked. Imagine what a million barrels of oil will do to the plants and animals – and to our water supply.”

One reporter asked, “Will this hurt the new horseless carriage industry?”

The answer recorded in the newspaper was, “No. After all, horseless carriages are only used in the cities and only travel six or seven miles during the day. There can’t be more than a few thousand – no more than six thousand – horseless carriages across the entire country.

“What concerns me”, she went on, “is what happens when there are ten times that many?

“Then, people will probably forget about horse manure and how it affected living conditions in the cities. At that point, we’ll turn our efforts to fighting the use of automobiles.”

Startled, I looked up, while the TV reporter was discussing how the EPA had stopped construction of coal-fired power plants by issuing a rule limiting CO2 emissions to 1,100 pounds per MWh.

Confused, I stood up. Had I imagined the EPA was trying to stop the use of fossil fuels after they had been the source of so much progress?

 

Note:

  1. The article is based on events in 1901. The facts are correct, except that the EPA was not then in existence and the personages of the Mayor and the head of the EPA are fictitious.
  2. From Horse Power to Horsepower, University of California, 2007 http://www.uctc.net/access/30/Access%2030%20-%2002%20-%20Horse%20Power.pdf

 

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For my reference see article 146

 

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