Oil Completions

When a cap is placed over a newly-dug well line, the well is said to be completed. As of tomorrow, my summer’s research into the oil and gas industries of the 1930s and 1940s will also be completed.

When this research began, I was looking for ways in which oil/natural gas and coal industries confronted each other for predominance in America’s energy portfolio. Throughout these weeks, however, I’ve found my study of The Oil and Gas Journal to be a gateway into studies of political manipulation by industry, labor relations, and WWII. Just in this last week, however, my professor-supervisor, Brent Kaup, and I have found our first article topic on the competition between coal and natural gas just before the great “Energy Shift” of the late-1940s to oil and natural gas.

As the economies of scale increased with oil and natural gas, the integrated companies (Standard Oil, Shell, etc) needed to find cheaper ways of transporting the crude and refined products they sold across the country. Ocean tankers were useful for Gulf Coast producers selling in the East Coast; railroads still dominated the Midwest, and trucks were necessary for the country’s most rural areas in the Southwest. Pipelines, however, were the form of transportation that oil and gas companies could most easily control, as it was often they who built the pipelines. By 1941, pipelines had the capability of transporting natural gas from a Corpus Christi, Texas, drilling site to New Jersey businesses, refineries, and homes. There was one problem, however, in that Interstate Commerce regulations, administered through the Federal Power Commission and Natural Gas Act, mandated that companies go through special hearings and permit applications to be able to transport natural gas interstate. These hearings were often times open to opposing testimony, and it was none other than the biggest coal companies and unions in the region that would testify against the natural gas company’s application. Since the Federal Power Commission was open to the same lobbying pressures from Big Coal that the rest of government was, many of these applications were indeed denied on the blunt basis that the pipelines would displace thousands of coal workers and would harm a fragile industry.

If blocking permits wasn’t enough, coal lobbies would often persuade state governments to raise taxes on natural gas production, which would get passed to the consumer, and eventually consumers might find coal cheaper. Furthermore, the opposition to natural gas pipelines also came from railroad unions, who were quickly seeing their predominance as energy transporters diminish.

Thus, despite the fact that natural gas had already been proven in the laboratory and in limited markets as replacing coal energy for electricity, home heating, and other domestic and industrial needs, it did not even begin to make a dent in coal’s market share until the late 1940s-early 1950s, and it would not catch up to coal until the present day in terms of total energy use. If refineries had already figured out natural gas’s uses, and if a pipeline transportation infrastructure was already within the industry’s investment capabilities, then why didn’t an energy shift happen in the early 1940s instead of later? Perhaps environmental sociologists, part of the field with which I’m working, too often try to ascertain what made an energy shift happen when it did. I’m wanting to know why one didn’t happen sooner. Here, it appears that, more than financial/technical advantages and global hegemonies, political manipulations allowed coal to dominate the energy scene for as long as it did.

These are the ideas I’m researching currently through the Oil and Gas Journal, and this where I’m afraid I’ll have to leave this project for now. I’m heading to Spain in the Fall semester, but I hope to return to this project that is increasingly combining my political and environmental interests more than anticipated. I owe a great deal to the donors, the Swem Librarians, and to the people at the Charles Center for making the funds and project space available to me. I also deeply appreciate the intellectual guidance, yet freedom to learn, given by my project adviser, Professor Brent Kaup of Sociology. I’ve enjoyed reading folks’ summaries, and I can identify with the idea that it’s hard to summarize 8 weeks of work into pithy blog entries that are readable. Then again, this is the challenge to which we might all eventually aspire: publication. Good luck for everyone else with finishing up their projects, and have a great rest of the summer!