Sunday, September 9, 2012

The lesson of Pithole

Late July 2011, I took a trip by motorcycle to attend my high school reunion. Traveling by myself with no timetable to adhere to, I stuck to back roads and took my time. Since funds were limited, I eked out the best fuel mileage I could obtain, and succeeded. With my 250 cc bike, at one fill-up, I purchased 1.49 gallons of gas to travel 146 miles. Mission accomplished!

On my way back, the back roads took me to Pithole, Venango County, in northwest PA, site of an early oil boom town. In 1866-67, this was the third-busiest post office in Pennsylvania, after Philly & Pgh. The pipeline and the standard barrel were invented here, among other things. Riots and prostitution and sabotage, all present here -- big surprise, right?

But in a few short years, it was gone. Why? They pumped the place dry. A few tiny derricks remain, scattered around the hillsides for miles around, but at Pithole itself, nothing. What little petroleum those scattered derricks produce today likely would not support the daily travels of nearby Pleasantville, let alone any substantive amount of the region, state, or world.

It's gone. It's used up. Forty years before the first Model T Ford appeared, the oil from our first oil boom was history, and nobody has found any more there since. Almost 150 years later, we have other Pithole-like sites. We came, we drilled, we sucked it dry, we moved elsewhere.

Only one problem: We're running out of elsewheres. Just what does anyone plan to do when we've run all the big oil pools dry, too? Sure, there was a lot of oil under Texas and California and Mississippi once, too, but they are long past peak. So is Alaska. So is Egypt. Mexico, Venezuela, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, all are close to peak if not past it. Within a generation, the world's biggest producers will be net importers. When demand outstrips supply by any means of production, everywhere, does anyone have a plan?

Measure it however you like, drill everyplace you care to, but eventually, they will all be like Pithole: A big empty field where oil used to be.