On oil, milkshakes, movies, Albert B. Fall and Ryan Zinke

Surely the most famous monologue in Let There Be Blood, the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson film about a California oil tycoon, concerns a milkshake. In a truly bizarre scene, a drunk — and possibly hallucinating — Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells Eli Sunday that the mineral rights he wants to sell are worthless because:

“Drainage! Drainage! … If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw… and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake, I drink your milkshake … I drink it up!”

The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which is in turn loosely based on the life of Edward J. Doheny, the rags-to-riches magnate who struck oil in the Los Angeles Basin in the late 1800s. But the milkshake line didn’t come from Doheny or from Oil! It came almost verbatim, Anderson told to LA Weekly writer Scott Foundas, from Albert B. Fall’s testimony during 1924 hearings on the Teapot Dome scandal.

That piqued my interest, and led me down a milkshake- and oil-slicked wormhole in a quest to find whence that straw quote really came.

Albert Bacon Fall was a miner, rancher, attorney and politician. As one of New Mexico’s first senators, serving from 1912 to 1921, he called for the transfer of all public domain lands to the states or private interests, and for abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In order to keep the land open for white settlement and exploitation, the senator fought against efforts by the Navajo tribe to have its reservation borders extended eastward so that they would encompass their ancestral homelands. And he was an architect of the General Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which opened up federal oil, gas and coal to development, but also brought some order to the lawless oil and gas patches of the day and was a vast improvement over the General Mining Law of 1872 which oil prospectors had been operating under.

When Warren G. Harding was elected president in 1920, with plenty of help from robber barons and industry giants, he chose his old poker-playing buddy, Albert Fall, to be his Interior Secretary. After all, who better to run a department than someone hell-bent on destroying it? In a foreshadowing of the Trump administration’s obsession with obliterating Obama’s legacy, Harding and Fall endeavored to squash the conservation ethic that President Theodore Roosevelt and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot had brought to the nation’s public lands two decades earlier.

I’ve been interested in Fall and the role he played in creating a Navajo tribal council in order to sign off on oil leases. But I’m also intrigued by how closely the current Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, resembles him in ideology and approach. By the time he had a seat on the cabinet, Fall had mellowed his land-transfer ambitions somewhat. He believed in keeping public land in public hands. But he also believed in transferring the resources contained within those lands to private hands, and doing so with as little regulatory hindrance as possible. His ideology extended to Indian lands, particularly portions of reservations created by executive order (as opposed to treaties). Zinke has embraced Fall’s approach, attempting to roll back regulations on methane emissions and hydraulic fracturing, recommending that national monuments be shrunk dramatically and re-opening a loophole that allows oil and gas companies to cheat the federal government of royalties.

Most people know of Fall for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Early on in his secretaryship, Fall leased Naval Oil Reserves in the Elk Hills in Kern County, California, to Edward Doheny (see above), and in the Teapot Dome in Wyoming to Harry Sinclair. In return, Doheny gave Fall $100,000 and Sinclair lent him $300,000. It didn’t take long for the shenanigans to come to light. Fall resigned in 1923 and later did jail time for accepting bribes; oddly neither Doheny nor Sinclair were convicted for offering the same bribes.

It was in the hearings on the Teapot Dome scandal that Fall allegedly talked about milkshakes and such. But I’ve searched all the Congressional Records of those years, and came up with nothing about milkshakes. These folks also struck out. Google any combination of “Albert Fall” and milkshake, and you’ll come up with plenty of references, all of which lead back to the 2008 interview with Anderson.

When it came to Teapot Dome, however, there was plenty of talk in Congress about drainage. Fall said that leasing the reserves was necessary to allow Doheny and Sinclair to drill “offset wells” that would suck up the government’s oil lest wells on adjacent, private lands drain it first. In yet another striking echo of the past, the Bureau of Land Management in January went ahead with an oil and gas lease in the Greater Chaco Region because “the parcels have been recently identified as being drained … by offending wells.” 

The thing is, Plainview’s straw/milkshake metaphor isn’t describing drainage. It’s describing directional drilling or, in the terminology of the 1920s, slant drilling. That’s where your straw, or drill rig, sitting over here, reaches across property lines into someone else’s adjacent milkshake, and steals it. Fall wasn’t accusing any one of theft, however; he was saying rather that there was just one big milkshake that crossed under property lines, and that the only way to get your share of it was to get your own straw — or in his case, Doheny’s and Sinclair’s — in there and quick.

In 1986, a guy named Turner H. McBride used the milkshake metaphor properly to describe the phenomenon. He happened to be general counsel for Standard Oil, which happened to have purchased Doheny’s properties — sections of railroad grant land that were on a checkerboard with Naval Reserve sections in the Elk Hills (the questionable leases were nulled by the Supreme Court in 1927). When Standard wanted to drill its parcels within the checkerboard, McBride told an interviewer: 

“… the Navy said, ‘No, we don’t want you to do that, because if you produce oil from your section of land, which is a mile square, you will drain oil from one or more of our sections, and we don’t want that.’ … it’s like you shared a milkshake with your friends, and you put your straw in your side of the milkshake and began sucking; if he didn’t start sucking pretty quick, the whole thing would be gone.”

See the difference?

Nowadays, with drills that can go down vertically a mile, then turn and continue drilling horizontally for another two miles or more, the whole concept of drainage and straws and milkshakes has taken on new meaning. In 2003, Sen. Pete Domenici who, like Fall, was a Republican from New Mexico and a friend of extractive industries, used the milkshake analogy to argue in favor of drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. By using long, bendy straws, he said, you could get at the milkshake without ever messing up the wilderness on the surface. To me, his oddly detailed description sounds more like Plainview’s speech than what Fall might have said:

“And  you  see,  way  far  away,  the  oil  is  underground,  and  it  is going  to  be  drilled  and  come  up. Here  is  a  giant  reservoir  underground. Just like a curved straw, you put it underground and maneuver it, and the “milk shake” is way over  there, and your little child wants the milk shake, and they sit over  here in their bedroom where they are feeling ill, and they just gobble it up from way down in the kitchen, where you don’t even have to move the Mix Master that made the ice cream for them. You don’t have to  take it up to the bedroom. This describes the actual drilling that is taking place.”

Domenici died in September, so we can’t ask him where he got the milkshake spiel. And while I couldn’t find the exact provenance of Plainview’s words, I did stumble across some rather salacious details about the first ever oil lease sale on Navajo lands, overseen by Fall’s appointee and puppet. That’s a wormhole I’ll save for another day.



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