Oil, milkshakes, and DRAINAGE!

Going down the wormhole after a famous movie passage

Ed note: A reader asked me recently whether Substack is paying me to do this newsletter. The answer: No (I’m not enough of a rockstar for that). But thank you for asking. 

If you’re not tapped into #journalismtwitter you may not be aware of the brouhaha brewing over Substack and its practice of luring big-name writers—a few of whom are total jerks—to their platform by paying them an advance of sorts. Many of these writers made their names in “traditional” journalism and critics claim they are abandoning and “disrupting” journalism by going the newsletter route.

Not the Land Desk. No advance, here. I didn’t abandon or disrupt anyone or anything. I applied for jobs in traditional media and was rebuffed, but I’m still looking. I freelanced for traditional media and I still do. I went the newsletter route because it fits my style (and went with Substack because it’s user-friendly). In a lot of ways, starting the Land Desk is akin to starting my own publication, the Silverton Mountain Journal, two decades ago (after failing to buy the “traditional” newspaper). 

And you know what else? At the Land Desk I can write about oil, bad presidents, milkshakes, giant straws, and the weird way that the internet can remake reality—all in one essay! 

This one may seem familiar to a few of you as it’s an upgraded version of a piece I wrote several years ago. It came to mind again when I was writing this week’s post on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and how she is now poised to finally do away with the legacy of Albert Bacon Fall, another New Mexican secretary of the Interior who was in all other ways Haaland’s polar opposite. You can read that post here—but only if you’re a paid subscriber. (Reminder: I DON’T get paid by Substack or advertisers or patrons, so I surely would appreciate it if all y’all free-riders would go on over and subscribe!)

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Now, about those milkshakes. 

Hollywood has given us some fine movies (and television) that revolve around oil and gas development, from Giant, which you should watch for the names (and Liz Taylor), alone: Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and Jett Rink (James Dean); to Five Easy Pieces (classic Jack Nicholson); to Promised Land. But my favorite has to be the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson film, There Will Be Blood

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. The film deservedly won an Oscar for cinematography. But Daniel Day-Lewis is the standout, giving an Oscar-winning performance as the Doheny-inspired Daniel Plainview.

Day-Lewis has a lot of good soliloquies in the movie, but surely the most famous concerns a milkshake. In a truly bizarre scene, a drunk—and possibly hallucinating—Plainview tells Eli Sunday that the mineral rights he wants to sell are worthless because: “Draaaainage! Drainage! Eli, you boy … 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!”

What the heck is this guy talking about, anyway? In 2008, LA Weekly writer Scott Foundas asked Anderson about the scene and whence it had come. Anderson told him that it wasn’t Doheny who’d gone off about milkshakes and straws, nor was the line from Sinclair’s Oil! Rather it came almost verbatim from Albert B. Fall’s testimony during 1924 Congressional hearings relating to the Teapot Dome scandal. But something about Plainview’s description seemed a bit off to me. So I went in search of the original quote. I ended up going down a wormhole. 

Albert Bacon Fall was a miner, rancher, attorney, and politician. As one of New Mexico’s first senators, serving from 1912 to 1921, Fall called for the transfer of all public lands to the states or private interests and for abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Fall blocked efforts to expand the Navajo Nation eastward onto traditional Diné lands in order to keep the land open for white settlement and exploitation, setting the stage for the Chaco-region checkerboard. And he was an architect of the General Mineral Leasing Act of 1920

Warren G. Harding was elected president—his slogan was “America First”—in 1920, with plenty of help from industry giants, including Doheny and oilman Harry Sinclair, who reputedly donated $600,000 to the campaign. In return, Harding stocked his cabinet with industrialists and their pals: Andrew Mellon, a multi-millionaire who had made his wealth from aluminum, oil, and coal, was named Secretary of the Treasury; Herbert Hoover became Commerce Secretary; and, at Sinclair’s behest, Harding chose his old poker-playing buddy, Albert B. Fall, to be his Interior Secretary. After all, who better to run a department than someone hell-bent on destroying it? 

The Harding administration uncannily presaged that of President Donald J. Trump. Just as Trump wanted to erase his predecessor’s legacy, so too were Harding and Fall obsessed with squashing the conservation ethic that President Theodore Roosevelt and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot had previously brought to the nation’s public lands. Harding lowered taxes on the wealthy and corporations and shifted the burden of filling the nation’s coffers to the working class. And, according to High Treason: The plot against the people, by Albert Kahn, when an old friend of Harding’s visited the White House, he found the president “sitting in his study, staring disconsolately at the letters, documents and papers of state that cluttered up his desk. Gloomily, Harding muttered, ‘I knew that this job would be too much for me.”

One of Fall’s early moves as a cabinet member was to wrangle the the Navy Petroleum Reserves in California and Wyoming out of the hands of the Navy. The land had been withdrawn from the public domain a decade earlier, thereby keeping the drillers at bay, so that Navy would have a stockpile of fuel for its ships if oil became scarce. But Fall didn’t like to see land sitting idle like that, without any drill rigs sticking out of it, so he took control of it and turned around and leased it out: The Elk Hills in Kern County, California, to his old prospecting pal Doheny, and the Teapot Dome in Wyoming to Harry Sinclair. 

Fall’s justification for it was, just as Plainview tells Eli: drainage. He argued that because subterranean oil reservoirs aren’t confined by property lines, drillers could come in and drill just outside the reserves and drain all of the government’s oil, leaving the Navy high and dry, so to speak. It would be better, Fall said, to have the likes of Doheny and Sinclair drill the oil and give a portion of it to back to the government, while also reaping huge profits for themselves. 

While Fall’s justification may have been geologically correct—I’ll talk more about that in a moment—his methods were a little slimy. He never put the land up for competitive bids. And, it turns out, he had accepted bribes—a $100,000 loan from Doheny and $300,000 from Sinclair—to keep it non-competitive. It didn’t take long for the shenanigans to come under scrutiny. Fall resigned in 1923. Although it’s widely assumed that it was due to the bribery scandal, some historians believe that it was equally due to public outcry over his support for the Bursum Bill, which would have robbed the Pueblo people of New Mexico of land and water. 

The Senate held hearings on what became known as the Teapot Dome matter in 1924. Fall traveled back to Washington to testify, insisting that he had done nothing wrong. Fall reiterated that it was necessary to allow Doheny and Sinclair to drill “offset wells” that would suck up the government’s oil to prevent other drillers on adjacent, private lands from draining it first. (In yet another striking echo of the past, the Bureau of Land Management a few years back went ahead with a contested oil and gas lease in the Greater Chaco Region because “the parcels have been recently identified as being drained … by offending wells.”) 

Yet no matter how meticulously I read that old testimony, I cannot for the life of me find any mention of straws or milkshakes. It’s just not there. I even researched the history of drinking straws and milkshakes to make sure they existed by then (they did). Then it occurred to me that the kind of “straw” that Plainview described didn’t really exist, yet. 

When Plainview talks about a straw reaching across a room, it sure sounds like he’s talking about horizontal drilling of the kind that’s now used to get oil from tight shale formations. That’s where they drill straight down a mile or more until they reach the target formation, then turn the drill bit 90-degrees and drill horizontally through the shale for another couple of miles. Plainview does some pretty crazy drill-rig action in the movie, but nothing like that. 

If Albert B. Fall were to have used the straw-milkshake analogy to describe drainage, it would have sounded more like this passage, written in 1986 by Turner H. McBride, general counsel for Standard Oil. Standard Oil had purchased Doheny’s properties—sections of railroad grant land that were adjacent to Naval Reserve sections in a land-use checkerboard in the Elk Hills (the leases issued by Fall were nullified 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.”

Here it’s not like a straw reaching across the room, but more like two friends sharing the same shake while sitting across the table from one another.

If Fall did use milkshakes as a justification for leasing the reserves, it didn’t work. He and his co-conspirators were all indicted in 1924 and went to trial in 1927 (declared a mistrial due to Sinclair bribing and intimidating jurors). In 1929 Fall was tried again and found guilty of accepting bribes from Doheny and sent to prison. Doheny, oddly enough, was let off the hook. 

I’m convinced that Fall didn’t say anything about straws and milkshakes. I’ve searched all the Congressional Records of those years, and came up with nothing. These folks also struck out. Google any combination of “Albert Fall” and milkshake, and you’ll come up with pages of hits—wikipedia, blog posts, and even Albert Fall’s own Twitter feed. But if you follow them down the wormhole, you always end up back at that 2008 interview with Anderson. That does not, however, mean that the movie-maker fabricated the whole thing. 

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—directional or horizontal drilling—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 2017, so we can’t ask him where he got the milkshake spiel. Maybe that’s for the best.