Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Going, going, but not gone

Having spent much of the morning acquiring my new e-bike (more on that below), I spent the afternoon driving past seasonally-closed oil museums and discovering that there is actually considerable oil and gas pumping and refining going on here in northwestern PA. I was also ogling fall foliage (there’s a lot of that here, too) and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince myself to maintain a somewhat critical stance toward all this automobility.

I knew the oil museums were going to be closed, although I’d hoped to catch someone at the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar, New York (that’s pronounced BALL-i-ver—“Home of the Deer and the Derrick,” it says on their welcome sign). I was there five years ago, and still have a souvenir bottle of light, sweet Pennsylvania crude that I bought there on my desk. Oil from this part of the country, it turns out, is of exceptionally high quality, and prized for various high-end and specialty uses. It is still pumped, and apparently becomes profitable again as extraction technology improves and whenever imported crude prices spike.

I didn’t realize, though, that the refining business was still so extensive in this part of the world. It’s obviously not the economic mainstay that it once was in places like Bradford and Warren, PA—these towns have all the hallmarks of economic decline and various attempts at revitalization. But there are still sizeable refineries in both places--the American Refining Group in Bradford, pictured below, and the United Refining Company in Warren, where I'm staying tonight. In fact, ARG is refining more petroleum from the Bradford oil field now than at any time in its history, according to its website. United refines about 70,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil a day under the Citgo brand, for distribution to convenience store gas stations.

What was more startling was to discover oil fields in the Allegeny (or Allegany, depending on which side of the NY/PA border you’re on) National Forest. Can you spot the pump in the forest in the image above? I kept driving past these and finally had to stop and tromp into the woods to get a better look. Lo and behold, the Bradford-based Minard Run Oil Company, which has been in existence since 1875, is developing the petroleum resources here, although the project has not been without controversy. It turns out that there’s been a kind of mini-oil boom going on in Pennsylvania in recent years, with 9,000 wells already pumping (almost 5,000 were drilled in 2006 alone) and another 2,000 expected to come online this year.

So the oil industry clearly isn’t gone from this region, and in fact high imported crude prices may help it to rebound somewhat. This raises some intriguing questions which I hope to be able to ponder as I move on tomorrow to the museums that are supposed to be open. Is oil actually leaving western New York and Pennsylvania, or is it here for the long term? If it’s really not leaving for the foreseeable future, how does that affect the usual dynamic of industrial history museums, which, in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s formulation, are “instrumental in the foreclosing of what is shown”*? Are these, in fact, industrial history museums per se, or are they really industry museums, created to celebrate the achievements of local enterprise rather than to interpret it critically or in larger contexts? Is there any potential at these sites for a helpfully retrospective look at how we got so mired in black gold, or is that just wishful anthropological thinking on my part?

And is there a parallel here between an industry that is kind-of-going-but-by-no-means-gone and an oil-driven economy that we-kind-of-know-we-should-unplug-from-but-we’d-really-rather-not-have-to? Today’s drive really made me think about that last point. This is a very beautiful part of the country, and a very beautiful time of year. And I have to admit I really like going for long drives by myself, especially when there’s stunning scenery to look at.

Oh, and the e-bike. The story there is that a guy from Knoxville, PA (pop. approximately 600) went to China in pursuit of machinery that he wanted to sell for his seamless gutter and ductwork business, and he noticed that everybody seemed to be riding electric bicycles, which he’d never seen in the U.S. So now he has two businesses, Liberty Seamless Enterprises and Liberty Electric Bicycle Company.

I bonded with the bike about forty-five seconds into my test ride, and I would post a picture of it here except that at present it’s stuffed into the back seat of my car. (It looks a lot like the bike over the bar in the restaurant where I ate dinner in Warren, PA tonight, except that mine has a battery behind the seat post, it’s not festooned in electric lights, and it’s not pink.) There’s not a ton of room in the back seat of a Jetta, so as much as I’d like to get it out and ride it around some more, I don’t want to undo the work of the three helpful guys at Liberty who helped me wedge it in there.

I’m not complaining about the Jetta, though. We just turned 500 miles on this tank of fuel (about a 25/75 biodiesel/petrodiesel blend) and the gauge is still above a quarter of a tank. Jimmy Carter was right: slowing down to 55 mph does make a difference. It helps a bit to dispel my guilt-induced confusion about whether I should be wholeheartedly enjoying this road trip!

*Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 159.

No comments: