WASHINGTON -- What city contributed most to the making of the modern world? The Paris of the Enlightenment and then of Napoleon, pioneer of mass armies and nationalist statism? London, seat of parliamentary democracy and center of finance? Or perhaps Titusville, Pa.
Oil seeping from the ground there was collected for medicinal purposes -- until Edwin Drake drilled and 150 years ago -- Aug. 27, 1859 -- found the basis of our world, 69 feet below the surface of Pennsylvania, which oil historian Daniel Yergin calls "the Saudi Arabia of 19th-century oil."
For many years, most oil was used for lighting and lubrication, and the amounts extracted were modest. Then in 1901, a new well named for an East Texas hillock, Spindletop, began gushing more per day than all other U.S. wells combined.
Since then, America has exhausted its hydrocarbon supplies. Repeatedly.
In 1914, the Bureau of Mines said U.S. oil reserves would be exhausted by 1924. In 1939, the Interior Department said the world had 13 years worth of petroleum reserves. Then a global war was fought and the postwar boom was fueled, and in 1951 Interior reported that the world had ... 13 years of reserves. In 1970, the world's proven oil reserves were an estimated 612 billion barrels. By 2006, more than 767 billion barrels had been pumped and proven reserves were 1.2 trillion barrels. In 1977, Scold in Chief Jimmy Carter predicted that mankind "could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade." Since then the world has consumed three times more oil than was then in the world's proven reserves.
But surely now America can quickly wean itself from hydrocarbons, adopting alternative energies -- wind, solar, nuclear? No.
Keith O. Rattie, CEO of Questar Corporation, a natural gas and pipeline company, says that by 2050 there may be 10 billion people demanding energy -- a daunting prospect, considering that of today's 6.2 billion people, nearly 2 billion "don't even have electricity -- never flipped a light switch." Rattie says energy demand will grow 30 percent to 50 percent in the next 20 years and there are no near-term alternatives to fossil fuels.