Part One – Amy Westervelt on John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas)

If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change

Part One – Oil Spill: Amy Westervelt on John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 

A perpetual flag of black smoke at the site of the world’s first major oil find is about as perfect a symbol of the climate crisis as I can think of. This digital representation by John Gerrard of the Lucas Gusher site in Spindletop, Texas, is programmed to run in parallel with the site itself; the sun rising and setting as it does in East Texas throughout the year.  
Spindletop started gushing oil in 1901 and stopped producing regularly by the late 1930s, but its impact on the world continues today through historic emissions, the industry that Spindletop helped to launch, and the hundreds of thousands of dried-up wells just like it, abandoned across the country. 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 3 million total abandoned oil and gas wells across the U.S. Approximately 2 million of those wells are very old and were never properly plugged, which means they continue to emit methane to this day, sometimes enough to catch fire. Additionally, methane and other toxic substances are leaking into drinking water and soil from these wells. 

The job of plugging wells and remediating drilling sites is supposed to fall to oil companies, but there is no enforcement mechanism to stop them from declaring bankruptcy and leaving their messes to the public. In 2020, Congress set aside $4.7 billion to do the job, but by most estimates that won’t be enough. As with climate change and air pollution, the public will continue to bear the fossil fuel industry’s financial burdens long after executives have cashed their checks and moved on. Importantly, Gerrard’s piece shows not only the way that Spindletop and the industry it represents endures, but also that oil wells are ephemeral; they have not always been here, and they need not continue infinitely, despite the oil industry’s insistence on the contrary.   

John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017 (still), 2017, Digital simulation, 33 x 33 in., Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery 

About John Gerrard

John Gerrard uses digital simulations and computer graphics to reflect on the pervasive presence of virtual and digital images in our lives. His artistic practice delves into the intricate relationship between reality and the virtual realm, inviting viewers to contemplate the profound impact of the digital world on our perception. He lives and works in Dublin, Ireland and Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the artist at johngerrard.net.

About Amy Westervelt

Amy Westervelt is an award-winning investigative journalist and executive producer of the podcast company Critical Frequency.  Her climate podcast, Drilled, seeks to uncover and understand the drivers of delay on climate action. Westervelt has received Murrow, ONA, and Covering Climate Now awards, as well as a Peabody nomination and a 2015 Rachel Carson Award for “women greening journalism.” Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on NPR, among other​s.​ 

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