A Left Wing Oilman? Indeed.
In his review of the new book on the Koch Brothers, Nicholas Lemann makes a sweeping, but largely correct, observation about the politics of post-World War II oilmen.
It would be hard to think of a rich oilman in the Southwest who wasn’t right-wing during Fred Koch’s midcentury heyday, but Koch seems to have been especially so.
This is an area well trod in Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich. Burrough connects the dots between the foundation of the John Birch Society, visceral anti-communism, and the rise of fabulous oil wealth. Burrough writes:
One of the most important, and most overlooked, legacies of Texas Oil has been its contribution to the growth of right-wing policies and politicians, especially in their most radical guises.
Fair enough. These oil dynasties were both a product of the rising Southwest politics and its forebearers. For anyone interested in Dallas in the early 60s, pre- and post-assassination, or anyone who just wants a great read, check out Lawrence Wright’s In the New World, which appears to have been reissued recently. I had to track down my copy through the public library.
While Lemann is correct that most oilmen in the Southwest were conservative, his rhetorical challenge is easy to meet. I can think of a prominent and rich oilman in the Southwest who wasn’t right wing. His name is George Phydias Mitchell.
He is the father of fracking – and I have profiled him at length in my book, The Boom. He was certainly a prominent oilman in post-World War II Houston, rising up from the ranks of pretender in the early 1950s to become extraordinarily wealthy.
All evidence suggests he was never particularly right wing. But by the ‘70s, he had clearly veered towards a deep interest in sustainability. (His interest in the dangers of population growth came after he had fathered 10 children.) His conversation to full-fledged promoter of sustainability came after spending a few days at a retreat in the Rocky Mountains talking to Buckminster Fuller.
Paradoxically, his interest in sustainability never permeated his career as an oilman. Indeed, his desire to extract the most nonrenewable resources from his leases led him to push for a better way to frack wells. The rest, as they say, is history.