Oil and Holy Water

Bearing the cross of a natural resource

If, as Alberta premier Ernest Manning believed, the bitumen locked in the Athabasca oil sands was a gift from God, then God would find a way to get it out, using all the tools He had to hand. Hence Project Cauldron, the 1958 plan in which a nine-kiloton nuclear weapon would be detonated somewhere under Pony Creek, about 100 kilometres from Fort McMurray. What made production difficult at Athabasca, according to geologists, was the “natural viscosity of the oil which is hundreds of times greater than that of most other oils.” The heat and shock of a nuclear explosion would turn it to liquid, they figured, which could then be extracted by the usual means.

Manning liked the idea, but selling the plan to the public would require a different name, something “less effervescent,” less likely to terrify. Hence Project Oilsand. Spoiler alert: it never came to pass. Nonetheless, Project Oilsand remains as an instructive parable — of industry’s strange, mystical, and violent obsession with oil, to the point of religious mania, seen through the lens of the atomic age. But it’s not a story stuck in the ’50s. According to Darren Dochuk, author of Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, petroleum and religion have always been linked, and they remain so. The zeal with which climate deniers shout down the sixteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg is practically Pentecostal. They still see wealth and energy as God-given, because (and only an idiot couldn’t see this, they say) it comes out of the ground, where God put it in the first place.

Manning’s world view, as Dochuk sees it, was informed first by the church and then by the populist Social Credit movement led by William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, a former premier of Alberta, founder of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute, and a radio preacher. (Dochuk himself is from Alberta and now teaches history at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.) Social Credit, in Aberhart’s view, was anti-big-business and favoured a kind of non-Communist, Scripture-inspired economic redistribution. It was a variation on the idea of the social gospel, which was fluid enough, before and during the Great Depression, to be adapted (or twisted) by both progressives and the capital class. During the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, for example, union supporters like J. S. Woodsworth preached the social gospel. Don’t just save yourself through Christ, they argued. Save your community through social reform. But, as Dochuk points out, John D. Rockefeller, head of Standard Oil and the richest man in the world, also preached a version. For Woodsworth, the gospel was a blueprint for the fair treatment of working people. For Rockefeller, it promoted free enterprise and what Max Weber called the Protestant ethic: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and you’ll get ahead, for your sake and the sake of your community, since wealth trickles down like oil. The ideas couldn’t be further apart. But the likes of Aberhart, Woodsworth, and Rockefeller were all reading from the same book.

Manning’s social gospel was informed by place: the goal was to advocate for the people of the West against the corporate elite and banks of the East. For him, the route to independence was made of black gold. “In his mind,” Dochuk writes, “Alberta had a God-given gift to offer all North Americans: a cheaper, safer supply of oil, mined in accordance with Christian principles.” But it all had to happen quickly. The clock was ticking — not just on the resources under the ground, but on society. Manning held to a “dispensational premillennialist view” or a kind of apocalyptic Christianity: the social strains, the Cold War anxieties, the perceived moral loosening (rock ’n’ roll!) were evidence of Christ’s imminent return. So if there was wealth to be had from Athabasca, it would have to be seized before Armageddon. Hence the nuclear bomb.

But this kind of thinking was how oilmen had framed their business all along. While Rockefeller had tried to lessen the shock of a natural boom and bust cycle through consolidation, economies of scale, and the calm if cutthroat conglomerate model of Standard Oil, the more free-spirited prospectors drilling in the West, in the less-tested patches of early twentieth-century Texas and California, knew that one day, any day, their wells would run dry. So rush, rush, rush! It will all come crashing down! Grab what you can! Surely it was God’s will, as exemplified in the Book of Revelation.

In many ways, the marriage of religion and oil, as Dochuk describes it, came easily. The Bible had a way of explaining the life of the rigger. The end times mirrored what technocrats would later call “peak oil,” anticipating the moment when all the wells would run dry. This was Ernest Manning’s world view, too.

The yoking of religion to commerce has never been exclusive to oil. As Chris Lehmann points out in The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream, from 2016, commerce has long been religion in America — an often desperate symbiosis. “It stretched across traditional denomination boundaries,” he writes, “coursed through the boom-and-bust cycles of religious revival, and stamped itself decisively on the careers of new prophets and religions, from Joseph Smith’s Mormonism to Joel Osteen’s Pentecostalism.” In America, Lehmann says, the market is “sanctified.” And in this way, the lesson of Abraham and Isaac is relevant: you can get away with murder if it’s done in the name of your God.

The larger-than-life oilman has been a particularly strong figure in American mythology. Jett Rink in the 1956 George Stevens film Giant, starring a doomed James Dean in his final role, is an unrepentant megalomaniac, a rags-to-riches wildcatter ruined by greed and self-loathing, a drunk obsessed with the one woman he can’t have. This was the image that the Rockefellers, Lyman Stewart of Union Oil, J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, and the oilers of the Southwest sought to counter with their public relations campaign of corporate piety: crude was not liquid money, the source of sin as spelled out in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Rather it was “the gods’ reward . . . a living linkage between the ancient and the eternal, the worldly and the heavenly.” Stewart went so far as to codify religious morality as corporate strategy, a best practice: temperance among employees, preaching on the rigs, blessing of the wells, and observing Sabbath on Sunday.

Premier Manning — sitting on an ocean of riches with no practical means for getting it out of the ground after Ottawa nixed Project Oilsand as too provocative, given tensions with the Soviet Union — saw the matter in starker terms. “We should be anxious,” he wrote, “for people to know about the oil which in the lamp of God’s Word produces a light that shines across the darkness of this world in order that men may find their way to Jesus Christ, the one who alone can save and who can solve their problems, whatever they may be.” We can imagine what he would have made of Jett Rink in Giant. His problem wasn’t the emptiness of having the material world but no love; it was a lack of God’s word. Jett just needed to go to church.

Manning finally found an investor for Athabasca at Sun Oil. Pew was a Pennsylvania Presbyterian made rich supplying fuel to the American armed forces during the Second World War and a close friend of the up-and-coming televangelist Billy Graham. Graham had established close ties to Western oilmen, and in 1953 he produced and appeared in a film called Oiltown, U.S.A., about a hard-driving, hard-drinking Texas wildcatter named Lance Manning. Out to get rich quickly, Lance represents “the American dream gone wildly bad,” a precursor of Dean’s Jett Rink. But just when he hits rock bottom, Lance picks up a Bible and the rest follows as expected. He sees Billy Graham on television. “Christ,” Graham tells the camera, “forgives and forgets our past.” It’s as clear a mission statement for American evangelical Christianity as has been spoken: only the future matters. The crimes of manifest destiny, slavery, Jim Crow, economic inequality, and environmental destruction are instantly forgiven for the man who joins with God.

And here, for the American oilman, is where things get complicated. For those with antennae for complexity and dissonance, the message is, in fact, the opposite. They who believe they can pass over sin and crime as easily as they buy radios and spark plugs will find themselves haunted, by ghosts of their own making. This is the story of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, from 1941, and of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 There Will Be Blood, based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel, Oil! Plainview is a California prospector who in an extended, wordless opening scene works a deep silver mine of his own making. He loses his footing on a ladder and is then fallen, in both a literal and a Biblical sense. But silver leads to oil, which leads to the evolution of a character who is both Kane and Jett Rink (megalomaniacal, self-loathing) — a character who must, eventually, reckon with his own failures as a father and a man. The spark for his reckoning is Eli Sunday, a young, ambitious preacher who dogs Plainview like Flannery O’Connor’s insistent Christ behind the trees in Wise Blood.

There Will Be Blood is a dramatization of the doomed marriage of religion and oil. It doesn’t end well for Eli Sunday: the grotesque and somehow also disturbingly funny last scene ends in his being bludgeoned by a bowling pin in Plainview’s Xanadu-like castle. It is a story of the triumph of commerce over religion. Or maybe it’s the story of the vanquishing of the false prophet that profits from commerce. It’s a movie, and you get to decide. In any case, it is at least a representation of the ­fragility of that bond so urgently preached by Ernest Manning, Pew, and Rockefeller.

Long after Manning’s time, the Alberta oil sands are actively producing, and the American myth of God’s oil has been replaced by the less transcendent story of globalization. The new players are from Russia and China, and they apply a wildcatter’s philosophy to large-scale production: drill whatever you can get your hands on, and when the ice recedes thanks to climate change, drill there too. There is no need for a comforting origin story or social gospel. Oil has gone postmodern: no comforting bedtime story of God’s bounty and man’s holy purpose is necessary anymore; the ends in themselves are sufficient. In America, arguably, the pious impetus has switched sides: the battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, Dochuk writes, has been joined by Catholic nuns, Mennonites, and Quakers. “If Christians and other people of faith,” one activist tells him, “rise up and demand that our nation turn away from the planet-threatening actions that have fed global warming, it will launch an irresistible force for change. . . . We need a faith of revival on behalf of the world as God intends, a planet where life not simply survives but thrives, a creation where God is at the center and delights in it.”

For better or worse, the imagery of transcendence always finds a way into the discussion of oil. And for some activists that’s a problem: Climate change fuelled by the religion of oil is not something for parables. It’s a material crisis. On whose side is Christ? It doesn’t matter. What matters is how we shape the world we live in and how it shapes us, and that’s a scientific discussion — about carbon, about degrees Celsius, and about how we plan to breathe in the long run.