Auction Revives History Of Scandal At Teapot Dome

May 16, 2014

If you were paying close attention during the latest season of Downton Abbey, you might remember this exchange:

PENELOPE WILTON (as Isobel Crawley): Is it really called the Teapot Dome scandal? It seems so unlikely. What’s it about?

MAGGIE SMITH (as Lady Violet Crawley): What’s it always about? Bribery and corruption. Taking money to allow private companies to drill for oil on government land.”

That real scandal from the 1920s revolved around a real place in Wyoming: the Teapot Dome oilfield. Now, a hundred years later, those public lands are being auctioned off, to the highest bidder. Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: The turn off State Highway 259 is unmarked. The only indication of where we are is a large sign warning that trespassing on this particular stretch of public land is a crime.

CLARK TURNER: This right here, we're going into the field right up here at this telephone pole.

JOYCE: That's Clark Turner. He oversees operations at the Teapot Dome today. We're driving along the edge of the two-mile wide field, past the bobbing heads of hundreds of wells. A ways up the road, he stops the car and points to a piece of wooden machinery held together by rusting metal.

TURNER: The first wells that were drilled out here in the 1920s were drilled with a rig like that.

JOYCE: The ancient rig is one of the last physical remnants of the scandal, but Turner says it looms large in other ways. Teapot Dome is the only oilfield in the country operated entirely by government employees. The Department of Energy uses it mostly for testing new technologies and these days, the wells produce just a few barrels of oil a day.

But as we continue the driving tour, Turner explains they could produce a lot more.

TURNER: It's all a matter of money to get it out.

JOYCE: Money the government has proven unwilling to invest. But Teapot Dome, the oilfield, was never supposed to make money for the government. When it was set aside in 1915, it was intended to be a strategic petroleum reserve for the Navy. But when Interior Secretary Albert Fall came into office in 1921, he had other plans for the field, plans that would prove lucrative for him.

PHIL ROBERTS: Little suitcases full of cash started appearing in Albert Fall's office, obviously not just left there by accident.

JOYCE: That's Wyoming historian Phil Roberts. Harry Sinclair and Ed Doheny, the country's two most powerful oil men, left the suitcases buying them exclusive drilling rights to the nation's naval petroleum reserves. Fall eventually went to jail for the exchange, but neither of the oil executives did. That impunity, Roberts says, cemented the scandal's most enduring legacy.

ROBERTS: It created a good deal of public suspicion about the motives of big oil companies and how big oil companies try very hard to control politicians or to buy politicians.

JOYCE: A suspicion that lingers even today. Roberts says looking at it through a historical lens, the government's plan to auction off the field to a private company should raise some red flags.

ROBERTS: Rather more openly and blatantly than the way Doheny and Sinclair were going about it, but essentially trying to gain private profit over a public resource.

TURNER: To operate an oilfield like industry within the government system is often frustration, very frustrating. So I won't miss that part at all.

JOYCE: That's Clark Turner again. After working at Teapot Dome for 25 years, he thinks oil drilling should be left to the oil companies. He says the field will be more productive in private hands. In the last century, only 10 percent of Teapot Dome's oil has been extracted. Turner says a private company using new oil recovery technologies could get much more.

TURNER: There has been a lot of interest in the field, a lot of companies have been calling over the last year.

JOYCE: The Department of Energy has already started auctioning off Teapot Dome's equipment. The field itself will be auctioned in the fall. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Stephanie Joyce.