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Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth

By Rachel Maddow
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Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow

Blowout (2019) takes a deep dive into the murky waters of the global gas and oil industry and reveals just how toxic it is. Author Rachel Maddow looks at evidence of this in the US, along with the corrupt deals being made in Russia and Equatorial Guinea, and makes a strong case for why big gas and oil needs to be held accountable for its actions – before things get any worse.

Key idea 1 of 10

In the United States, oil extraction got going in the late 1800s, with John D. Rockefeller turning it into an industry. 

It all started on a Pennsylvania farm in 1859. Two men, Edwin Laurentine Drake and his hired assistant “Uncle Billy” Smith, managed to drill a hole and force a cast-iron pipe sixty-nine-and-a-half feet into the ground. What emerged was called “rock oil,” and it led to an industry that has become one of the most dominant powers in the world.

That day, Drake and Smith got around twenty barrels of oil out of the ground. Fast forward to 2019, and more than 90 million barrels are being produced every single day. How did we get from there to here?

Well, the man who really turned the industry into the one we know today was John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the guy who wrote the book on how to operate a ruthlessly successful oil business.

In his first twenty years of business, Rockefeller put the squeeze on and bought out any competitor that crossed his path. By 1875, he owned every major oil refinery in the United States. Other men were building up monopolies too, like those that Andrew Carnegie and Philip Armour created in, respectively, the steel and meat industries. None proved as lucrative as oil, though. Rockefeller was making so much money that paying off the politicians who regulated the industry amounted to just another business expense. Estimates suggest that, at his peak, Rockefeller was worth the equivalent of $305 billion in 2006 dollars.

In 1911, a landmark antitrust lawsuit led to the Supreme Court finding Rockefeller and his company guilty of creating a monopoly through unfair business practices. But the ruling only managed to divide Standard Oil into a bunch of smaller businesses, all of them still owned by Rockefeller. As a result, he was able to continue amassing his fortune and ended up richer than ever before.

Rockefeller also left the oil industry with a legacy of making sure no penny went unpinched. He kept a close count of every piece of inventory that was bought and made sure that nothing went unaccounted for or unused. 

As the years went on, this focus on keeping operating costs as low as possible would continue to be the modus operandi of the oil industry.

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