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Oil Companies First Built Pipelines in the 1860s; They’ve Been Contested Ever Since

In the 19th century, reformers were happy to have oil come out of the ground—but they objected to the way oil companies controlled it

Edwin L. Drake's first oil well. ( Bettmann/CORBIS)
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After the House passed its version of Keystone XL legislation last week, the Senate is gearing up to pass its version. The Senate bill is still shy of veto-proof majority, its sponosor told Fox Sunday this weekend, but the upper house could still vote on the bill today.

Keystone XL, which would connect tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf Coast of Texas, has been controversial in the context of climate change. But for as long as the oil industry has tried to move its products through pipelines, they've been contested. Unlike today's activists, who want oil to stay in the ground, in the 19th century, reformers were happy to have oil—what they objected to was the ways in which companies controlled it.

Oil pipelines have been around since the 1860s: at the time, wagons and flat boats were the most common means of transporting barrels of the stuff, but the industry needed something better. Built out of two wooden boards combined to make a “V” shape, the first oil pipeline is widely believed to have been produced in 1862 at the well of Phillips No. 2 in Oil Creek Valley, Pa. It ran oil about 1,000 feet with the help of gravity. 

But as historian Samel T. Pees outlines, high transportation costs and labor disputes motivated oil men to continue developing pipeline technology. By 1863, a two-and-a-half mile iron pipeline, complete with pumps helping to move the oil up a 500-foot incline, was laid in Pennsylvania. That pipeline was called “experimental”—particularly when the pump became faulty and leaked at the joints. The first fully successful pipeline—which used wrought iron and highly reinforced joints to transport between 1,950 and 2,000 barrels of oil daily across five miles of land—came in 1865. (Today, the world’s longest crude oil pipeline runs about 2,353 miles with 82 pumping stations maintaining a flow of over 1.6 million barrels a day—but in 1865, five miles and 2,000 barrels was still pretty good.)

These pipelines were originally intended to allow private companies to control the transport of oil—and it was that power that activists objected to. By the late 19th century, Standard Oil controlled 80 percent of America's oil transportation markets, and oil was too important a resources to be so firmly in the hands of just one private company, reformers thought. But, as the historian Arthur M. Johnson wrote back in 1956: "When the pipeline issue appeared on the national scene as a subject for public policy, it was too late to change the place that private enterprise and inadequate public policies on the state level had given pipelines in the petroleum industry."

While Standard Oil did, eventually, have to give up its almost total control of the industry, according to Johnson, even after the government got involved in the pipeline business, it did not much change how private industry made decisions about building and investing in pipelines. This industry has always resisted intervention—which would make it that much more surprising if the U.S. government does, ultimately, reject Keystone XL's permit.  

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