This issue of the Journal of American History focuses on the history of oil, and for good reason. Modern societies as we have known them could not operate without ample and diverse supplies of energy, suggesting that the story of our major fuels can hardly be ignored in any attempt to understand American history. Among energy sources, oil retains a special significance that argues for the special scholarly attention found within these covers. Reflecting oil’s unique strategic importance, Daniel Yergin aptly titled his influential industrial history of the topic The Prize.1
At the dawn of the twentieth century, coal towered above its rivals as the United States’ dominant source of energy. Ranking a distant second came wood. Until 1902, no American president had ever ridden in an automobile, the machine most closely associated with oil. It was not until midcentury that oil replaced coal as the country’s most used fuel. Over the last three decades of the century, oil jumped well ahead of natural gas, by then its closest rival.2
The ascendancy of oil involved more than just replacing one fuel with another. Growing consumption of the fossil fuel in liquid form was deeply intertwined with how Americans lived, how they conducted business, and how they fought wars. Thus studying oil is required to understand twentieth-century American history—whether the approach is social, economic, environmental, scientific, political, diplomatic, or military.
The impact of oil derived, in large part, from its attractiveness as an energy-dense, easily deliverable source of fuel for transportation. After the virtual disappearance of coal-driven railroads in the 1950s, most forms of U.S. transportation—including personal automobiles, farm tractors, commercial trucks, diesel trains, commercial aircraft, and military jets and tanks—were propelled by oil products.3
The United States’ almost total dependence on oil for transportation raised the strategic question of what would happen if oil suddenly became unavailable—a vital issue in national security planning going at least back to World War II. Clearly, all forms of modern American mobility would be sharply curtailed until alternative sources could be developed. Even a small shortage would result in significant disruptions and spikes in prices. The most basic of human functions—the intake of nutrients—would be dramatically threatened in modern interdependent societies if fields could not be plowed and crops could not be delivered to market. Along with the risk that a shortage poses to the physical ability to move people and transport goods, oil has an additional cultural importance attached to mobility in modern society.
The dependence of modern mobility on oil must be paired with U.S. reliance on foreign nations for much of its supplies. The United States was a net exporter of oil until the mid-twentieth century. After that, net imports climbed, reached 50 percent for the first time in 1998, and peaked at 60 percent in 2005. Thus, the U.S. government needed to remain alert to potential threats to its foreign oil supplies and reacted strongly when supplies were interrupted. A war with Japan and two later ones in the Persian Gulf were closely connected to competition over access to oil.4
Oil (and other fossil fuels) have had a profound impact on other areas of American life, as well. Unregulated mining, refining, delivery, and combustion of oil contributed greatly to the soiling of land, air, and water, just as remedial actions implemented after passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act and other legislation led to substantial reductions in some forms of pollution. Oil production and processing have also formed an important segment of the national economy and, even more so, the regional economies of producing states such as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Alaska.5
The major role of oil in national affairs was most visible during the Arab oil embargo from October 1973 to March 1974 (which Tyler Priest in this issue identifies as one of the few oil-related topics that make it into U.S. history textbooks). The dramatic cut in foreign oil supplies jolted the American economy and the American psyche. For a time, long gasoline lines around the country threatened the ability to travel. Coming in the later stages of the Vietnam War, the oil crisis seemed to signal the end of American dominance in the world. In his 1974 State of the Union address, President Richard M. Nixon declared energy “the first priority.” Still reacting to the aftermath of the embargo, President Jimmy Carter upped the ante when, in a 1977 nationally televised address, he called the energy crisis “the moral equivalent of war.”6
High prices, government policies encouraging conservation, and production from new areas eventually helped counter the adverse effects of the embargo. In the five years after 1977, oil imports fell by half. In the 1980s oil prices started to drop, most dramatically after Saudi Arabia ramped up its production to crash the world market. A strategic petroleum reserve, authorized by federal legislation in 1975 to deal with major interruptions in supply, had by the mid-1980s peaked at 115 days’ worth of foreign imports. With the “oil problem” apparently solved, interest in taking further steps or even seriously studying the problem waned.7
Nonetheless, oil continues to play a vital role in American life and the vulnerabilities associated with petroleum have not disappeared. U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf, rapidly rising global demand for oil, driven by emerging economies in places such as China, and evidence of the impact of fossil fuels on global climate serve as reminders that oil remains a dynamic factor in national and international affairs.
A Multitude of Approaches
This collection of articles reflects the multifaceted nature of oil dependence. Not surprisingly, the diversity of the essays makes them difficult to categorize. Looking at the pervasiveness of petrochemicals, Brian C. Black aptly declares: “Oil does not just fuel Americans’ vehicles. Oil has changed their diet, their clothes, their neighborhoods, their jobs, their fun—in fact, everything about U.S. society.” The pervasiveness of oil goes well beyond American shores. As Myrna Santiago begins her contribution, “Oil revolutionized the world.”8
Yet a clear area of focus has emerged—the conflict between the extraction, processing and burning of oil, on the one hand, and the protection of neighboring human settlements and the natural environment, on the other. Several articles zero in on local and regional perspectives that depict environmental damages in places from Los Angeles to Veracruz to the northern Gulf of Mexico to southern Nigeria. Christopher Sellers writes: “The recent furor over the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico serves as only the latest reminder of how, since the 1960s, discharge and damage from the oil business have catalyzed America’s environmental conscience.” Kathryn Morse examines the powerful impact of media images of “oil-soaked birds and other wildlife, crippled, dying, or dead.”9
Other authors examine various risk-management strategies that have been used to find appropriate balances between the environment and the economy. Joseph A. Pratt calls for a nuanced interpretation of the oil industry, noting, “The collective memory of the Exxon Valdez disaster does not include the largely unknown story of [Exxon’s renovated management system] creating a safety culture now used as a benchmark by other companies.”10
A second theme involves the global complications of U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Priest discusses how control of oil “helped elevate the United States as the supreme global power” and how eventually “the United States and its oil industry steadily yielded control over the substance” that had contributed greatly to American economic and strategic advantage. Toby Craig Jones concludes that the “increasing willingness of the United States to use force and violence to shore up the flow of oil to global markets has not been a sign of American strength but rather of its limits.” David S. Painter adds that “By the early twenty-first century, dependence on oil had become an economic and strategic liability and an environmental problem.” Kairn A. Klieman analyzes how the behavior of American oil companies contributed to a lack of transparency in business activities and the origins of the “oil curse” in Africa.11
Other recurring themes focus on the cultural and social dimensions of oil in American society. Karen R. Merrill evokes the popular 1980s television series Dallas and its principal character, the “villainous J. R. Ewing … head of the fictional Ewing Oil Company.” Robert Lifset and Brian Black remind us of Marlon Brando’s role as an oil tycoon in the “undistinguished” movie The Formula (1980). Darren Dochuk concentrates on “petro-Christians,” whose money supported a number of religious and political causes in the sun belt. Tyler Priest and Michael Botson demonstrate that some of the nation’s most intense battles over unionization of workers occurred in the oil refineries and petrochemical plants of the Gulf Coast.12
The Role of Historians
Numerous academic disciplines can make valuable contributions to the better understanding of oil. History has several comparative advantages, however, and its contributions on the subject will be needed in the coming years.
Many subjects in the world of oil are highly sensitive and shielded from public view. Oil companies protect proprietary information to avoid leaks to competitors or the public. The U.S. government may not want its covert relations with authoritarian oil exporters to be exposed. Yet controls on information are relaxed over time, and patient historians can provide fuller views of events than possible from people reporting more contemporaneously. Several articles in this issue make use of valuable materials made available only well after the events they cover.13
Amid frequent demands for instant information and quick answers, the world of energy demonstrates the necessity of following developments over long periods to understand their significance. It often takes decades for the impacts of scientific discoveries, business investments, and policy initiatives to become apparent. It has taken time, for instance, to develop the “vast automotive infrastructure that was designed explicitly to stimulate near-constant growth in American demand for gasoline,” as chronicled by Christopher W. Wells. Additional work by historians will be needed to identify the key turning points on the road to the our current condition.14
Diana Davids Hinton provides a historian’s perspective on the latest big story in energy—hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas deposits in shale formations, which “has begun a new era in the world of energy.” This new technology is rapidly expanding the supply of available oil and gas and presents a plethora of environmental challenges, particularly those related to the combustion of the expanded world supply of fossil fuels into carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, as Hinton shows, this “new” development is not so new after all. George P. Mitchell—an independent Houston wildcatter who developed the technology to break up the rock surrounding oil and gas deposits with liquids under great pressure—began to achieve success in 1997. The technology was necessary to develop the Barnett Shale—a formation where he began exploratory drilling in 1981. Mitchell was drawn to the Barnett Shale because of incentives in the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978 for developing deep formations. The act was a complex and controversial response to the energy crises of the 1970s, which had exposed numerous weaknesses in U.S. energy policy.15
Hinton puts the pieces of this puzzle together to elucidate a major contemporary issue. Her contribution and those of others in this issue should inspire scholars in the future as they try to solve the many puzzles remaining in the history of oil and the other fuels that both sustain and endanger us.