Research conditions have been tough so far. Besides waking up in the A.M. and actually having to be reasonably industrious, the climate is equally challenging; it must be at least 68 degrees in Swem! In all seriousness, it’s been nice to get in the habit of staking out one of the tables in Swem second floor and seeing other researchers pound away at their reading materials.
As for my project, weekly publications that start in 1935 make for slow progress! I’m up through 1937 now, and what’s amazing is that a number of the major developments that led to our modern oil industry are beginning to take place. Commercial airplanes are becoming the next big thing. People have discovered that petroleum products are amazing at killing pests and weeds (pesticide and herbicide industries). Asphalt, a distillate that was normally discarded as waste, is starting to replace cement for highway surfaces; soon, hundreds of thousands of miles of roads will need to be paved and re-paved with petroleum products and will be driven upon by those handy dandy automobiles that run off petroleum products. Petroleum products are also being used to keep the engine parts of those automobiles lubricated. Why, even the engines of the drill pumps at oil drilling sites will need lubricating oils. Sociologists may call this the treadmill of production; you and I can call it a vicious cycle. I’m sure this all sounds very basic, but the fact is that these connections emerged during a relatively rapid time of investment, chance discovery, and industrial expansion.
Regarding the possible hypotheses to which I referred earlier, so far it seems like lesser labor costs are a huge catalyst for the oil industry. As Timothy Mitchell in “Carbon Economy” points out, oil work is much more disperse and fragmented than is coal work; there are many more specialized tasks, and they are spatially separated (drilling in Texas—>refining in Delaware, for example). This makes it more difficult for oil labor to organize and therefore more difficult for it to resist company demands. Certainly geopolitical rivalries are significant; Germany and Japan are already threatening invading other countries for oil supplies. However, the hegemonic rivalries are not nearly as significant yet as postulated by many sociologists. Britain is usually connected with coal in terms of hegemonic power. However, access to Persian Gulf oil is a vital economic interest of the 20th century, and while the U.S. led the way in petroleum industry technology, Britain and France had first access to oil in the Gulf. Explaining why Britain receded as global hegemon would seemingly require more than just a coal to oil explanation, but the research is very early!
If I can weather another grueling week in Swem, I’ll be sure to report again next week. The World War II era is sure to bring about some more interesting trends in the oil industry. In the meantime, those of you who are following the BP saga should keep this in mind. The “blowout preventer” was originally designed to keep thieves from stealing natural gas from pipelines. The idea was that the pressure in the blowout preventer would be so hard to crack that, upon breaching, the explosion would be so large as to instantly kill the thief. This was then supposed to act as a deterrent. Thus, the very same danger and potential for large-scale destruction that made the first designs of the blowout preventer so attractive are what now are associated with infamy in the Gulf of Mexico. Funny how things work out.