National Geographic : 2010 Oct
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: TYRONE TURNER It is 150 years, seven months, and 24 days from the day, August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania, to the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana, this past spring. Drake's well, which struck oil at a depth of 69.5 feet, launched the modern oil industry. We have been dealing with the consequences of our petroleum-fueled lifestyle ever since. There's been much finger-pointing and debate over who is to blame for the stain of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, but the fault can be said to lie in no small part within ourselves and our appetite for oil. It is an appetite that Drake, with his 20-barrel-a-day well, could not have imagined. The oil from that well, and others of that era, went mostly into kerosene, which was replacing whale oil for lighting. Henry Ford's company, which would ultimately put car keys in millions of hands, was nearly half a century away. Petroleum-based polymers, plastic bottles and bags, fertilizers, jet planes, the Age of Hydrocarbon Man, as Daniel Yergin calls it in The Prize, his history of oil, had not yet arrived. The words that follow in this month's issue, and the photographs---an oil-soaked pelican, a tarry shoreline, the despair on fishermen's faces---remind us that there is more to the cost of oil than the ticking numbers at the fuel pump. An oily wave breaks on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama.