The first successful attempt to drill for oil in the U.S. almost didn’t happen. According to Pulitzer-Prize winning author Daniel Yergin, the small band of drillers who accomplished the feat had already been instructed to suspend operations when they struck oil on Aug. 27, 1859.

Until then, workers dug shafts by hand to mine crude oil, which was refined into kerosene or “coal oil.” (What became gasoline was considered a useless, by-product prior to the invention of the automobile.) The process of digging for oil was expensive, yielding only small amounts per day.

The financial backers of Edwin L. Drake and his crew believed drilling salt wells could provide a viable alternative. But they had given up on the effort when Drake hit oil. The letter instructing him to close up the operation and return home to New Haven, Conn., arrived two days after they struck oil.

Drake had no real expertise in drilling operations — he was selected to head up the effort in Titusville, Pa., in part, because he was a railroad conductor and could travel to western Pennsylvania for free. But he displayed an amazing tenacity when others thought he was crazy for trying to drill for oil.

In the days that followed, his biggest challenge was figuring out where to put the oil after he filled up all the whiskey barrels he could find. The other drilling operations that followed created such a demand for them that, for a time, the barrels were worth twice as much as the oil that filled them, according to Yergin.

Eventually, rail lines and then pipelines connected the oil fields in western Pennsylvania with refineries. It took John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil and the other companies decades to put together the industry as we know it today. So why do we expect ethanol to emerge overnight into a mature industry with the capability of replacing conventional, petroleum-based energy sources?

I’ve thought about that lately when I’ve read articles criticizing ethanol processors for being too inefficient or using too much water or leaving too much of a carbon footprint or driving up food prices or any number of other shortcomings that the authors seem to think are reason for stopping the development of ethanol.

One article, in particular, has drawn a considerable amount of ire from renewable fuel advocates. The article, by Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald, attempts to use EPA’s recent findings that ethanol does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently as another reason to killing off ethanol. (Gasoline, interestingly, is not held to any such standard.)

One reason for ethanol’s shortcomings on greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA, is that growing corn for ethanol in the United States is somehow responsible for increased clearing of the Brazilian rain forest. What EPA and Grunwald both conveniently choose to ignore is that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has actually been declining since ethanol production began to increase.

The EPA’s proposed rulemaking for implementing the renewable fuel standard has created some dissension within the ranks of the administration. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he disagrees with EPA’s interpretation and is concerned that it could damage the industry irreparably.

Undoubtedly, ethanol and the renewable fuels industry will go through many fits and starts as it continues to move toward becoming a reliable source of alternative energy. Edwin Drake could probably understand that all too well.

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