The very first time a new born human opens their mouth to cry they employ the simplest of all arguments: “It’s not fair.” While the phrasing of “it’s not fair” may sound juvenile, it is none the less the foundation of nearly every argument and disagreement that our species has. Oh sure, we can employ much more complicated ways of making this protest, but objection to personal slight is still the base of many of our complications. And while the content of our arguments may change and complicate with the same rapidity as our society, this primitive form persists.
For instance, take the recent laws passed in Texas and Oklahoma that prohibit local municipalities from banning certain types of oil and natural gas extraction; fracking being the most notable. The most prominent argument for these state bills is that they protect the ability of individuals to capitalize on the mineral rights that they own. Taking that away, to quote one operator at a recent Stillwater, Oklahoma city council meeting, “is like taking food right out of [his] kid’s mouths.” This concept of taking is so prominent that it has become the name of this particular discourse: the takings argument.
Because these arguments have been constructed in response to fracking it is easy to think that they must be just a novel as that very extraction method. But at its core, the takings argument objects to personal slight. For many small oil and gas opporators who find their small businesses caught up in the protest to multibillion dollar corporations, this complaint is easy to understand. It is not complicated, nor is it new. In fact, it was the same argument that was used one hundred years ago when the Taft administration, in the name of national security, limited the ability of wildcatters to stake a claim on any oil they could reach.
As the twentieth century opened America began to emerge as a burgeoning superpower. This can be partly credited to the transition of our Navy from coal burning ships to oil. While this fuel proved to be superior to the old style coal steamers, there was concern among “oil conservationists” that unregulated drilling would lead to a premature depletion of domestic oil. As such, a legislative effort ensued to ensure the Navy’s future oil supply by establishing strategic reserves. In 1909, under executive order by President Taft, large tracks of federal land were deemed untouchable to drillers. Many drillers at the time saw this as a power grab by the federal government that violated the “first to prospect; first to profit” nature that had ruled oil discovery in the American west. Previously, if any prospector had hit oil on public lands, they had the right to develop that oil. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many westerners employed a takings argument; saying that the over-reaching Feds were robbing them of future opportunity and prosperity.
Eleven years later, the Wilson administration instituted a permitting system under which operators had to bid on leases in order to produce petroleum on federal land. These terms were signed into law by President Wilson as a way of trying to reopen the West. But to most drillers, even this intended compromise resembled interference. Drillers saw any form of restriction as a destruction of their livelihoods that had killed the open spirit of the West.
One of the biggest scandals in US history would eventually result from this feeling that the Feds were abusing their power and stealing oil from those who would develop it. Included in the lands that Taft placed in the Naval Reserve was an oil rich spot in Wyoming known as the Teapot Dome (seen in the header image). But as Wilson won the 1912 election, the change in administrations came with the inevitable change in cabinet members. Among the new blood was a Republican senator named Albert Fall who was appointed to Secretary of the Interior. As a senator from New Mexico, he sympathized with the oilmen of the west. After convincing the Secretary of the Navy to shift management of the oil reserves to the Department of the Interior, Fall accepted bribes to allow those oilmen close to him drilling permits without going through the bidding process. Once Fall’s dealings were discovered, the resulting fallout of the Teapot Dome scandal sent Fall to prison and permanently marred the Wilson presidency.
One hundred year later, when the Texas city of Denton voted to ban fracking inside of its borders, the calls of taking broke out again. When the Oklahoma city of Stillwater looked poised to outlaw the practice as well, it was met with an overwhelming pushback from the industry fearing a new president. This resistance took the form of a takings argument. After both states prohibited their cities and towns from passing such bans, state lawmakers echoed some form of the takings argument as justification. The residents of Denton continue to fight for their ban and those in Stillwater still push for tougher restrictions on oil producers. But it is worth noting that while these methods may be new, the arguments are as old as we are. It was the first argument all of us implemented in life. It is an argument that we all understand on a primal level, even if we don’t want to admit it.