The Great Texas Oil Heist.

AuthorFitzgerald, Timothy

The Great Texas Oil Heist, by Robert Cargill (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2021). 192 pages, ISBN 978-1-62288-402-5.

Crime novels and true crime stories are a bookstore staple. Many long airplane rides, beach vacations, and cold winter nights have passed amiably with the self-indulgent pleasure of a potboiler. Rarely, if ever, does that genre intersect with energy economics. This account of unauthorized directional drilling under the East Texas field ("The Black Giant") in the late 1940s and 1950s is likely the only plausible true crime account that has a direct bearing on issues of energy economics.

Robert Cargill is a retired academic chemist who clearly took on this project as a personal passion, having lived through it as a close but uninvolved observer. He delivers a gripping account of the events leading up the discovery of the scheme to drill under adjoining leases and produce oil illicitly. The historical events might seem to have no bearing today, given that they concluded nearly 60 years ago and all of the key actors are dead. Yet the issues of resource theft, regulatory capture and corruption, and the application of technology to solve problems are relevant today as are the events in East Texas.

Natural resource and energy economics recognizes the centrality of common pool problems. Overlying owners potentially imposing a pumping externality on one another is a classic example. In this case, owners of adjoining leases outside the common pool allegedly drilled directional or "slant" wells into the rich deposits of the eastern edge of the East Texas oil field. That was not the only necessary feat, however, because the oil flowing to the surface needed to be marketed without raising alarms, and concealed in order to remain below allowable prorationing thresholds that would otherwise attract alarm. The matters of concealment - such as the miles of additional and unpermitted well pipe that were needed - and the breadth of the conspiracy required to sustain such a scheme were impressive

Cargill starts the book answering the door of his parent's house on a Saturday morning in April 1962. He was in transit between a post-doc in Berkeley and his first academic job at the University of South Carolina. When he opened the door, "I found a seven-foot giant with a chiseled face and piercing gray eyes. He was wearing a 10-gallon Stetson, had .45 on his hip, and had the signature Cinco Peso badge of a Texas Ranger displayed on his...

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