News from the Underground (Swem)

Hello Summer Researchers!

This is Devin Braun reporting. I got to Williamsburg this past Monday, June 7, and have settled in with all the finest accommodations Ludwell has to offer! To review, my project is evaluating why the U.S. has shifted emphasis between hydrocarbon energy sources (oil, natural gas, and coal) when it has (I’ve found this to be a great introduction at parties!).

My research has started with reading and coding all relevant articles in the weekly Oil and Gas Journal, starting in 1935. What I look for in each journal publication is evidence of significant technological adaptations, changing state and federal regulations, broad shifts in resource availability, geopolitical rivalries over hydrocarbon resources, evidence of competition between resources, potential labor disputes/unrest, and other factors. All of these are potential explanations for why powerful companies and, indeed, national interests might shift between resources.

Since my research starts in 1935 (based on the availability of the Oil and Gas Journal), the major shift currently being studied is the one from coal to oil. Some form of oil drilling has been going on for upwards of 70 years now, but oil’s era of supplanting coal as a transportation fuel is still in its adolescence. Few conclusions can be drawn so far, but resource scarcity is most certainly NOT one of the catalysts of increased oil use. As of 1935, industry analysts projected that there was a world supply of coal sufficient to meet energy demands for the next 5,000 years, as opposed to oil, which even then was projected only to satisfy the next 30 years of demand.

Incidentally, oil spills have been occurring for as long as oil has been drilled. There was a case in January 1935 of a well blowout, after which a “top-kill” procedure was tried, but the leak was only stopped 3 months later with the insertion of a relief well. Does this sound familiar? It makes one proud to see how far we’ve come…err…well you get the idea.

I meet weekly with Professor Brent Kaup of the Sociology Department, who is my mentor for this project. He suggested great pre-research reading for this past Spring. Not a sociologist by inclination, I found it difficult at first to subscribe to world-systems theory (the idea that national distinctions are less relevant; it’s the same world capitalist system order, for example, that operates in all countries). The political scientist in me just wouldn’t have it. Early research has convinced me, however, that these differences can be reconciled. Each journal has articles on international trends, and nearly every editorial is concerned with the changing federal regulatory structures. While national distinctions are necessary to understand the geopolitical rivalries, the trends of oil exploration, drilling, and the emergence of oil interest groups all follow similar paths across countries. This project is also captivating from a historical perspective. In March of 1935, for example, the growing Empire of Japan is threatening to continue invasions of China if access to oil fields is not granted. Readings of accounts like these are replete with a feeling of foreshadowing.

Part of the project is also designed to compare with previous energy shift research within sociology. One of the predominant views is that hegemonic powers go through a process of material expansion, capital accumulation, and subsequently more material expansion. How the capital is invested is often what determines energy shifts. Other researchers connect the rise and fall of global powers with the change in energy resources. Britain’s ascension and the fall of the Dutch are connected with the rise of coal/fall of biomass energy, while the U.S.’s rise to power, in conjunction with Britain’s descent, is attributed to the preponderance of oil. Still other researchers link the changing geographic investment in energy with globalization economics. First, global powers specialize in cheap resources close to home, but as those resources become scarce or harder to extract, the world powers must find ways of investing in faraway lands with bulkier quantities and technologies. Another perspective not to be omitted is that of labor policy. Perhaps some shifts happen because some energy sources provide fewer labor costs and obstacles than other sources. It is within these contexts that this project runs its course.

I’ll be in further contact as I trudge my way through the inter-war period of the Oil and Gas Journal. I’m thoroughly enjoying perusing the other research topics, and I wish all the other researchers the best in their efforts. Swem library has me pretty well contained, but I hope to find time to hang out with you guys!

Devin Braun