In North America, one factor shaping petromodernity is the idea that oil offers a solution to the very problems it causes. This article examines that paradox, focusing on the 1950s. It analyzes a set of pamphlets from the Petroleum Industry School Program that were distributed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the trade organization that promotes the US oil industry. It first describes the evolution of support for and opposition to the oil industry as well as that of the ideas of freedom that the industry sought to mobilize to gain public support. Next it describes the content of the pamphlets, which employed a series of binary pairs, such as success/failure and risk/reward. API used these pairs to craft stories that acknowledged problems inherent in the oil industry, invoked their inverse, and showed how oil solved them. This article concludes by describing the real-world consequences of API’s efforts as they were manifest in processes of policy formation in North Dakota during its 1951–54 oil boom. Through its efforts to frame discussions about oil, API made it possible for political leaders to make decisions about technical issues from which the oil industry stood to benefit.
In its 2016 manifesto After Oil, the Petrocultures Research Group argues that North Americans face the “epistemological and practical problem of the impasse of fossil fuels,”1 characterized by the simultaneous need and inability to transition to a new form of energy. The impasse is ideological, but also more than ideological, as ideas about oil (a term we are using metonymically to refer to petroleum and its derivatives) are inextricably bound up in politics, the economy, and the infrastructure that makes economic growth possible. Because of the complexity of these relationships, this impasse might appear impossible to resolve. But in fact, the Petrocultures Research Group argues, the opposite is true. The impasse results from a
situation of radical indeterminacy where existing assumptions and material relations can no longer hold or sustain us and in which we might activate the potential obscured by business-as-usual. . . . [It] is a condition of possibility for action within a situation that is suddenly open because it is uncertain.2
To realize this potential, North Americans must imagine new ways to relate to energy, “unmaking and remaking [their] social worlds,” a task that involves “mak[ing] visible our social, material, and affective attachments to oil.”3
We begin to undertake that task here. Our focus is the idea that oil’s benefits outweigh its costs: oil is the key to a better future, or so politicians, lobbyists, and oil companies argue. It makes modern life possible, or at least convenient. This idea, not to mention the discourse that perpetuates it, is decades old, and we are interested in its development at a key historical point, that of the 1950s. Our object of study is a series of pamphlets distributed to schools by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the trade organization formed after the First World War to promote the US oil industry.
We focus on a pernicious, deep-seated paradox. In North America (and elsewhere), one factor shaping petromodernity, or a way of life that derives its structure from institutions that depend on the production and consumption of oil, is the idea that oil offers a solution to the very problems it causes. This idea is a symptom of a broader pattern described by James W. Carey and John J. Quirk, who borrow from the historian Leo Marx to argue that Americans have long acted as if the cure for the ills caused by technology is more and better technology.4 With respect to oil, Jon Gordon argues that this paradox is manifest in the widely held belief that the sacrifices made by oil workers, for instance, who put in long hours doing dangerous work far from their families, will be redeemed by improved life in the future.5 Such improvement will come from increased efficiency in oil production or the development of more sustainable technology. Others have found this paradox in discourses related to wealth and job production, which oil production seems to promise, albeit at the cost of the environmental harm or the infringement of voters’ rights that are the price of “business friendly” policies that governments enact to ward off capital flight.6
This paradox also influences the advertising strategies that oil companies adopt. Enbridge, Shell, Suncor Energy, and others focus on the solutions oil makes possible, employing images that evoke myths of community, nationhood, and security.7 They rely on pictures of pristine or reclaimed environments accompanied by claims about the good to which they put the oil they extract, in an effort to “associate themselves or their products with the environment or environmentalism to draw attention away from the negative aspect of their operations.”8 Oil, they argue, will solve the problems of inequality, insecurity, and environmental damage, even if it is also one source of those problems.
Our focus is the 1950s because of the important social shifts that North America underwent in the years following the Second World War. People were beginning to move out of densely populated city centers into car-dependent suburbs, with resulting shifts in the ways they understood privacy and mobility, shifts made possible by oil.9 At the same time, oil companies were working to develop technologies for extracting oil from the bituminous sands in Alberta and the shale in the US Great Plains.10 Not coincidentally, it was during these years that places such as Alberta and North Dakota experienced their first oil booms.11 It was also during these years that socioeconomic and earth system trends began to show signs of a “great acceleration” in the consumption of carbon-based forms of energy, along with their corresponding environmental effects.12
The publications we examine were created by API’s Oil Industry Information Committee as part of its Petroleum Industry School Program, and they include the Teacher’s Handbook (1950) in addition to pamphlets called Petroleum in Our Modern Society (1950), Petroleum in Our Age of Science (1951), What Makes This Nation Go (1955), and Facts about Oil (ca. early 1950s) (see fig. 1).13 They were relatively ephemeral, printed on low-quality paper and intended for immediate consumption. The few copies that remain are in archives, such as that of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, or the hands of collectors, who occasionally make them available on eBay or Amazon. Thus the first question we ask is descriptive: What do these publications contain? In 1958, political scientist Ross B. Talbot wrote of the series, “It is questionable if this is education.”14 To what exactly was he objecting?
Our second question builds on this description to address the substance of Talbot’s critique. In what conditions, we ask, did API craft the materials in its Petroleum Industry School Program, and in what ways did the petromodern paradox—the idea of oil as solution and problem—shape its narrative of progress? This question allows us to examine three intertwined dimensions of API’s program: its ideological dimension (concerned with politics in a narrow sense as well as the broader circulation of ideas), its economic dimension (concerned with oil’s role in post–Second World War capitalism in the United States), and its infrastructural dimension (concerned with the technologies of oil extraction and their geographic deployment).
We proceed by describing the context in which API developed the materials we are analyzing. The oil industry has long faced opposition in the United States, although the nature of the opposition evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We first describe this evolution and then the conditions in which API responded to it in the postwar era. We highlight the ideological, economic, and infrastructural dimensions of these contexts, providing a framework for interpreting the sections that follow, in which we present our analysis as such. We argue that API acknowledged the antinomies of postwar North American society, such as those between “liberty and trauma, power and impotence, [and] opportunity and injury.”15 It transformed such binary pairs into a story that, in line with the petromodern paradox, resolved those contradictions, always in favor of the positive term and in ways where oil and oil men were the heroes.16 In our final section, we consider a specific historical case, that of western North Dakota during its first oil boom, in the 1950s, to show the ideological, economic, and infrastructural dimensions of API’s narrative—an instantiation of the petromodern paradox.
Opposition to the Oil Industry in the United States
The oil industry in the United States has faced a range of detractors. From the late nineteenth through the twentieth century, politics in the United States were marked by an evolving set of ideas about how to structure economic relationships mediated by oil production and consumption. In the next section, we examine the ideological, economic, and infrastructural dimensions of oil during and immediately following the Second World War. To provide a sense of where those ideas fit within the broader historical arc, this section describes three broad configurations of ideas, from 1870 to 1910, from the 1920s, and from the 1960s onward. In broad strokes, this arc begins with a concern for common welfare and moves toward a conception of freedom based on individual choice, with corresponding effects on the organization of the US oil industry as integrated into the broader economy.
In the late nineteenth century, critics of the oil industry were concerned about the inequalities of monopoly capitalism, focusing on John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company controlled 90 percent of the US petroleum market within a decade of its founding in 1870. The opponents of Standard Oil, in particular journalist Ida M. Tarbell,17 fought against it on the grounds that it exercised undue control not only over competitors but also over consumers and people in other industries. In 1911, the US Supreme Court upheld a decision that found the company in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, forcing it to dissolve into thirty-eight smaller companies.
The nature of the opposition to oil shifted by the 1920s, when academics, journalists, and novelists began describing the conditions in which oil company employees worked. In 1922, for instance, sociologist Robert S. Lynd spent six months in the oil fields run by Standard Oil (now reduced in size) in Montana and Wyoming, where he wrote stories for magazines such as Harper’s describing, by Bob Johnson’s account, “the traumas experienced by oil workers and their families out in the oil fields [and] the oil industry’s embrace of an exploitative economic system that relegated modernity’s traumas to the far reaches of the mineral frontier.”18 Five years later, Upton Sinclair published Oil!, the “ur-example of [the] fictional literature on oil and trauma,” which described “resource waste, toxic spills and fires, market manipulation, labor exploitation, pastoral decline, political corruption, and even suicide and murder.”19
From the Second World War through to the 1970s, opposition shifted again to focus on the environment. The Santa Barbara spill in January and February 1969, during which 100,000 barrels of oil leaked into the Santa Barbara Channel in California, galvanized the nascent environmental movement with its images of black, slickened beaches.20 A year later, the United States observed the first Earth Day, instituted by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and in 1971, Irving Stowe and Dorothy Stowe founded Greenpeace. Opposition to the oil industry continued during the 1973–74 embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC): at the same time as environmentalists were drawing attention to the harm caused by cheap oil, the embargo caused the price of oil to rise.21
Whereas before the Second World War opponents focused on questions of collective welfare, after the war their approach changed. As the next section shows, car use increased and housing patterns shifted toward the suburbs, a situation that both influenced and was influenced by the oil industry’s attempts to link ideas of freedom to individual choice. This shift influenced the environmental movement, too, which came in large part to individualize environmental action rather than challenge the structural factors related to government policy and the capitalist economic system.22 This individualization rested on a neoliberal conception of the free market, based in a strict regime for protecting property rights. Thus, although not every environmentalist group adopted this approach, the ideas underpinning it were widespread enough that Terry L. Anderson and Ronald R. Leal could write in their influential 1991 book Free Market Environmentalism, “Whether these [property] rights are held by individuals, corporations, non-profit environmental groups, or communal groups, a discipline is imposed on resource users because the wealth of the owner of the property right is at stake if bad decisions are made.”23
Freedom as Individualism in the 1950s
Although individualist notions of freedom are common in many places, the approach to freedom advanced by API is rooted in a property rights regime specific to the United States. In contrast to countries where mineral rights revert to the government, mineral rights in the United States revert to landowners. In addition, mineral rights are separable from surface rights. They can even be owned by different entities, a situation that can lead to conflict when the owners of mineral rights must request access from landowners to the land underneath which they want to drill.
This approach to mineral rights had a clear impact on the way the oil industry functioned in the years leading up to and following the Second World War. A problem arose when oil deposits crossed below the surface boundaries separating one person’s land from another’s. An 1889 ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had established the “rule of capture,” according to which people could draw oil from an entire deposit, as long as they placed the well on their own land. As a result, “the only rational response . . . was to pump as much oil, as quickly as possible, in fear that if you held back your neighbor would suck the oil from underneath your property.”24 Thus in the early to mid-twentieth century, according to Matthew T. Huber, the problem that plagued the oil industry in the United States was overproduction (rather than underproduction, as was the case later). The oil industry worked with the federal and state governments to rationalize production by regulating the spacing between wells needed to maintain optimum production levels.25 In North Dakota, for instance, during its 1951–54 oil boom one legislative priority was to set rules for how far apart wells had to be.26
The problem of overproduction was exacerbated after the Second World War when oil companies saw demand for their products drop. During the war, the industry had supplied the military with fuel, plastics, and lubricants, not to mention explosives. As the next sections show, API highlighted its contributions to the war effort in its Petroleum Industry School Program publications as a way to frame oil as central to the maintenance of American freedom itself. During the 1950s, however, the oil industry had to create new markets, a task it accomplished in part through processes of fractionation, or the decomposition of crude oil into refined forms with specific uses. The more uses to which oil could be put, companies reasoned, the more options consumers had about how and where to live their lives.
Through their marketing departments and trade organizations, oil companies emphasized the connections between their products and freedom: oil and its derivatives—plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, not to mention gasoline for transportation—made life simpler because people did not have to think about the tasks that oil could now take care of. People could focus instead on the aspects of life that marked them as individually successful. In this way, the oil industry’s strategy of “fractionated lives”27 also contributed to ideas of freedom defined in increasingly entrepreneurial terms:
The choice of where to live and work represents the qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) metric of an individual’s entrepreneurial capacities connoting both one’s own success in raw material terms and a family’s ability to invest in the “human capital” known as children, as the quality of education and schooling came to correlate with the property values (and, thus, fiscal revenues for schools) of a given neighborhood.28
This strategy coincided with the growth of suburbs, as soldiers returned from the war and looked for houses for their growing families. Because suburbs were less densely populated than city centers, public transportation was inefficient. Rates of car ownership rose as a result, from 0.22 per person in 1930 to 0.41 in 1960, and eventually to 0.76 in 1990.29 Two of petroleum’s fractionated products, gasoline and diesel, were key to automobile technology, as they were both more transportable and more energy-dense than coal.30 Although coal remained the main source for electricity production, car use increased to such a degree that petroleum consumption in the United States surpassed coal consumption in 1950 (see figs. 2 and 3).31
This discussion of the post–Second World War oil industry reveals the links among the three dimensions we identify in the introduction. The ideological dimension, in a broad sense, is primary: ideas about oil evolved in ways following a broader pattern where freedom came to be understood in individualistic terms. The ideological dimension was present in a narrow sense, too, that of electoral and legislative politics, as in the debates about well spacing. These ideas influenced—and were influenced by—the economic dimension. The rights regime supporting individualistic ideas of freedom shaped legislators’ approaches to regulating the oil industry, while the oil industry, through marketing efforts premised on the differentiation of products through fractionation, encouraged forms of consumption that were consonant with individualistic ideas of freedom. Finally, the infrastructural dimension, manifest in the geographic deployment of oil technologies, was also linked to the ideological and economic dimensions, at the moments of production (through spacing), refinement (through fractionation), and consumption (through the distribution of housing, with its requisite energy needs, in new neighborhoods outside of city centers).
The Petroleum Industry School Program
Within this context, API created its Petroleum Industry School Program, for which it saw two audiences: students (and their teachers and parents) on the one hand, and oil men on the other. It described the program’s purpose in these terms:
To provide information about the oil industry to the schools in various acceptable ways, with the expectation that teachers, students and parents may thereby better understand the industry’s contribution to the well-being, security and improved standards of living of the American people.
To inform oil men about the schools and acquaint them with the people and problems of education, with the expectation that they will be stimulated to take greater personal interest in education and more effectively lend their support and cooperation to the schools at local, state, and national levels.32
The program was designed “in accordance with principles recommended by educators” to “furnish teachers and students with accurate and objective information about the oil industry,” and although in the early 1950s it was only a pilot project, “The ultimate goal [was] a nation-wide school program.”33 Importantly, “Responsibility for contact with the schools, for distribution of the materials, and for providing the program services [was] placed with the local oil men.”34
To describe the publications’ content, we drew from two sources to devise a set of categories. The first was recent work by Patrick McCurdy, who identifies nine themes in oil industry advertisements from the past decade, related to large-scale concerns (the environment and policy, the economy, and social development), to industry (emergency preparedness and technological innovation and, more narrowly, pipelines), and to identity-related abstractions (lifestyle and nationalism).35 The second was an observation from Bob Johnson, who writes,
As Americans [in the mid-twentieth century] grappled with the implications of living in a modernized world of tankers, pipelines, wells, and the multiplying industrial and financial structures that they fueled, they saw modernity’s intense antinomies in oil, including, on the one hand, the very real material and psychic joys that came with living in a fossil-fueled world and, on the other, the equally intense anguish that all too frequently accompanied the storm and stress of an oil-wrought modernization.36
Johnson’s observation suggested the element that structured our categories, that of the binary opposition, while McCurdy’s categories suggested areas of focus with respect to content. With those as our starting points, we developed our categories through an iterative process of reading and refinement, first identifying broad themes organized around different oppositional pairs, then narrower themes that helped clarify relationships between them. In the end, we identified five relevant pairs: success/failure, victory/loss, oil/other energy sources, risk/reward, and the United States/other countries.37
As prior work on API has established, the story API told across the range of its 1950s public relation materials was about the benefits of capitalism.38 This idea was especially clear in the success/failure pair. For example, What Makes This Nation Go argues that
while we [i.e., students learning along with API] were looking into the petroleum industry, we were also finding out something about all industry. We found out about the importance of economic growth and productivity. We discovered how new and daring a social invention capitalism is.39
The Teacher’s Handbook highlights the opposite: “for every fortune made, hundreds failed in the effort.”40 But in the process, it also recuperates this failure: “Whether they succeeded or failed, the many who tried pioneered an industry that has become a great boon for mankind [because they] set in motion forces that made possible a modern industrial revolution.”41 In fact, this ideological recuperation structures the way API employs the other binary pairs we observed, too.
The theme of victory/loss builds on success/failure by focusing on the role that oil played in support of US efforts during the First and Second World Wars, as alluded to above. The Teacher’s Handbook, for instance, says that “the importance of oil in the second World War can hardly be overestimated,” a statement it backs up with a list of petroleum-derived products that made oil essential “in every phase of fighting”:
Petroleum supplied not only the gasoline and lubricants for planes, tanks, trucks, ships, and every type of motorized vehicle but also one of the principal ingredients of synthetic rubber for tires and for self-sealing gasoline tanks, toluene for TNT in bombs and shells, fuel for flame throwers, compounds for waterproofing tents and producing artificial fogs, asphalt for airfield runways, and ingredients for healing salves.42
Similar lists appear in Facts about Oil and Petroleum in Our Modern Society.
The negative element in the pair—loss—is present largely as an implicit what-if: what would have happened during the wars if not for oil, which was an “increasingly important bulwark of national security”?43 Of course, API is reassuring on this count, too: “During and immediately after the [First World War], the cry ‘We are running out of oil’ reached new peaks. As if in answer, the industry made the decade 1920–1930 the great decade of oil discovery.”44
This logic of victory extends to oil/other energy sources, too. If oil was a hero of the war, it was an even greater hero of civilization, superior to its competitors in the ways it supported innovation and the capitalist enterprise: “Petroleum is more than a prime source of energy. Without lubricants from petroleum, the wheels of our mechanized civilization would grind to a halt.”45 In contrast, other lubricants were inadequate. Similarly, no other energy sources could match oil, and gasoline in particular, for its density and transportability. As we noted above, these factors were important as housing patterns shifted away from densely populated cities to car-dependent suburbs after the Second World War: “When [gasoline] burns, it leaves almost no ash, and it delivers a high amount of energy in relation to its weight.”46
In many respects, these three pairs—success/failure, victory/loss, and oil/other energy sources—contribute to a larger narrative about reward/risk, which likewise evokes ideas of heroism. On the one hand, API acknowledges the risk involved in exploration. Indeed, by the account of one economist writing in the 1950s,
there is no way to prove the presence of an oil reserve except to drill for it. Well drilling is an expensive operation, in particular when drilling depths are great. . . . The probability of success for a wildcat [i.e., exploratory] well is probably about 10 percent.47
API emphasizes this risk repeatedly: “The oil industry risks gigantic sums of money each year in drilling exploratory wells. Only by taking such risks can new oil fields be discovered.”48 As above, this approach allows API to recuperate the risk by showing how it makes the oil men’s success all the more meaningful. Perhaps nowhere is the risk-taker’s heroism clearer than in the case of “Drake’s Folly,” the name given to a well dug by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. In multiple publications, API tells the story of how the townspeople laughed at him—no one had ever found oil that way before, and besides, they asked, what would he do with it? All through the summer he drilled, his persistence outweighing his embarrassment, until “one sultry afternoon in late August, when the bit was lifted from the hole, there, a few feet below the surface, you would have seen a dark liquid bubbling.”49 By API’s account, it was the beginning of an industry, all because of the vision of one determined and prescient man: “From all over the country, venturesome businessmen, prospectors, gamblers, and skilled workmen swarmed to Pennsylvania to risk their fortunes—and sometimes their lives—for this new resource.”50 The lesson about the capitalist system as a benevolent arbiter is clear: those who succeed deserve their success, while those who fail do so because they are not clever or persistent enough.
Thus it is no coincidence that the United States, the most successful capitalist country by API’s account, was also the birthplace of the oil industry. In many ways, the pair United States/other countries consolidates the other themes. API presents its case through empirical observation deployed to persuasive ends: “The per capita consumption of oil products in the United States,” it says, “is approximately 25 times that of the rest of the world. This comparison provides a reasonable yardstick to measure the standard of living enjoyed by the American people.”51 Put another way, as a result of oil consumption, “the United States is the leading industrial nation and one of the most prolific food producers.”52 The negative element in the pair—other countries—appears mostly in those countries’ implied deficiencies, the fact that they do not enjoy the same standard of living.
Or, more expansively, we can gather together all the binary pairs under the sign of capitalism:
Oil has been found and used extensively because people in the United States have been free to engage in seeking oil and to claim the rewards of finding it. There have also been incentives for them to develop ways of putting oil to work for the benefit of all.
These activities require imagination, initiative and enterprise—qualities that flourish under our form of government and in our type of society. Because so many Americans possess these qualities, they have played a major part in developing oil in other countries as well as in our own.53
It was under this sign that API did its ideological work: capitalism was both an ideal to strive for and an economic system, one that has functioned well as a way to organize the use of oil technology within the United States. API strengthened these connections through the stories it crafted about oil, as the next section shows.
Narrative Dimensions of the Petromodern Paradox: Three Examples
The list of themes above is not exhaustive, of course, and its value is largely heuristic. In particular, these themes bring into focus ways that API used stories to obscure the contradiction inherent in the petromodern paradox, or the idea that oil could solve the problems for which it was the cause. First, to address the problems caused by oil, API acknowledged a challenge or risk inherent in the oil industry (for instance, failure). Second, it invoked the inverse of that risk (success under capitalism). Then, to show how oil solved these problems, API translated the contradiction into a story whose plot was resolved in such a way as to show the rightness of capitalism and the benevolence of the industry within it. These narratives were especially clear in the API publications’ treatment of pipelines (where there was a pro-/anti- pipeline pair) or, more broadly, in the structuring pair modern/old.
Consider the discussion of pipelines in the Teacher’s Handbook. The challenge oil companies faced, as they tried to lay a pipeline in Pennsylvania shortly after Drake’s well proved successful, came from the teamsters union, which saw
the pipeline as a formidable competitor that probably would replace the wagon train. They began a campaign of destruction, and armed guards were necessary day and night to protect the line’s course.
By 1874, a 60-mile line of 4-inch pipe was moving 7,500 barrels of crude oil daily from the producing area to Pittsburgh. This time, the teamsters were joined by railroad men.54
The inverse terms were those of efficiency and expansion: “As the trickle of oil became a stream, storage and transportation became pressing problems.”55 Such problems placed limits on how much and how far oil could be transported. The contradiction played out in a story about “fights, disruption of the oil flow, and court battles [that] followed in regular procession” until at last it reached a resolution when “all concerned were convinced of the economy and reasonableness of transporting oil by pipe.”56 How were they convinced? Although the Teacher’s Handbook remains silent on the specifics, What Makes This Nation Go gives some sense. API treated unions as part of a larger system that tended toward efficiency, guided by the market as checked by government regulators: “For the government acts as a kind of umpire for us all, laying down certain basic rules of good business behavior. For example, it protects the rights of labor unions.”57 The value of the larger system went well beyond the unions’ specific interests: “Perhaps most important of all, we [i.e., Americans] have learned how to put together inventive, competitive business, strong labor unions, intelligent consumers, and responsible government into a strong, free combination that is the hope of the world.”58
This all-encompassing system was clear in API’s broader narrative about progress and modernity, summed up succinctly in an image in Petroleum in Our Modern Society and Petroleum in Our Age of Science (fig. 4). According to this narrative, one challenge society faced before the development of the oil industry was drudgery:
The average person who worked in a factory put in 70 hours. A farmer worked even longer hours. . . . And yet, oddly enough, people actually turned out fewer goods in those long 70-odd hours than you could turn out today in 40 hours or less.59
The inverse term, again, was efficiency. But inefficiency was not the only problem. Another was the risk of failure: “No one guarantees a man a profit. Once he enters the race of free enterprise, he stands the chance of coming out a loser.”60 Its inverse term, of course, was success, but in a specific form: success was achieved by the man who was most inventive. These pairs—drudgery and risk on the one side, efficiency and inventiveness on the other—translated into a story of heroic men like Edwin Drake: “Because capitalism allows each man to do his best, to keep his gains, to rise as far as he can, it has released the energies and initiative, not of just a few fortunate men, but of millions of men.”61 Efficiency appeared to be a natural component of the system: “For while the profit motive is the strongest incentive, we know to make a man do his best, it is also a strict taskmaster. . . . In time, the profit motive weeds out the inefficient and encourages the best.”62 Oil’s efficiency resolved both the challenge of drudgery and the risk of failure by increasing productivity and rewarding only the most capable.
This logic even helped API recuperate the conflicts of the past, in particular with respect to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust. The risk his critics perceived in monopolies was that “the quest for profits would lead to [unfair practices resulting in] the enrichment of a few at the expense of many.”63 The inverse terms were those of safeguards and competition:
in a system in which there were many private profit-seekers, there would be an automatic safeguard against just this sort of thing. For when the quest for profits is open to all, one merchant who tried to take advantage of a community would soon find himself pitted against other merchants, also seeking a profit. The pitting of one man against another is called competition.64
The story that develops from these terms is that of Standard Oil (which goes unnamed) and benevolent government regulators: “To prevent this [monopoly], the government stepped in and, by a famous anti-trust lawsuit, almost 50 years ago, the biggest company was broken up into 38 separate enterprises which today compete vigorously.”65 Hence the justness of the oil industry, where competition keeps prices in check: “A moderate profit, low prices, dynamic research, and a never-ending striving for efficiency—these are the marks of a truly competitive industry.”66
This section and the ones preceding it have clarified the discursive logic underpinning API’s “educational” publications: the binary pairs provided the raw material for the narratives, and the narratives provided a structure for interpreting the relationship between the pairs’ positive and negative elements. One question remains: how did API use its materials in practice?
Policy Formation: North Dakota’s Oil Boom, 1951–54
In this final section we examine a specific historical case, that of North Dakota, a state that underwent an oil boom in the early 1950s (and has undergone several since, the most recent in 2008–14). In the mid-1950s, four professors from the University of North Dakota published a report about the boom, the details of which demonstrate API’s on-the-ground strategy.67 The state leaders who developed oil policy came from the business class and were guided, according to the researchers, by oil men. The Petroleum Industry School Program was one of the tools they used to persuade North Dakotans of the value of oil in their state.
State leaders faced resistance among residents in the region. Resistance took two forms, depending on whether it came from people who benefited directly from the boom, such as those who owned mineral rights, or from people who felt the boom’s negative effects without benefiting directly. Those who had mineral rights were concerned largely with fiscal questions related to taxes and technical questions related, among other things, to well-spacing,68 although like those without mineral rights, they also experienced the challenges created by the population explosion in the region. The largest town, Williston, grew from 7,400 residents to 9,700 over the course of the boom, while smaller towns doubled or tripled in size.69 The problems that came with this growth were predictable: the housing supply could not meet the demand, crime increased (although not as much as the researchers anticipated), and schools were too small to accommodate students effectively.70
These problems were economic (in the case of taxes) and infrastructural (in the case of well-spacing), but the approaches that API and state leaders took to address them were largely ideological, in both the narrow sense of legislative politics and in the broader sense of the way they interpreted the boom. API was aware that it had to overcome the public’s resistance, having conducted a survey about “public attitudes toward the oil industry and discovered that many people knew about the Teapot Dome, the exploits of John D. Rockefeller Sr., and the like, but little about the vast dynamic development of the oil industry.”71 However, if API’s ultimate goal was to influence legislation with respect to infrastructural questions, it had an important advantage, in that the general public knew little about the economic or infrastructural dimensions of the oil industry. According to a survey conducted by the authors of the report on the 1950s boom, “only slightly over 10% [of residents] had any comprehension of the oil tax at all and even they were undecided or showed no particular grasp of the issue.”72 In contrast, the town’s leaders, including “businessmen and some professional men, primarily lawyers,” knew considerably more.73 To exert influence with respect to these issues, API could focus on members of the business class.
With respect to the broader set of ideas supporting the oil industry, those on which broad support of the oil industry depended, API had the Petroleum Industry School Program. Talbot notes that in North Dakota, “The committee [from API], or its representatives, visited 24 high schools in 1954 and all placed orders with the committee for the free materials.”74 But these publications were not API’s only tool in the state. During the 1954–55 school year, it organized a panel of industry experts to answer questions at local high schools, and it ran a contest on the theme “What Has Oil Done for Me?” with prizes for schools and individual students. Six hundred students from the state’s junior and senior high schools participated, the winners from each school receiving an engraved plaque awarded at a banquet in Williston.75 To reach people outside of the schools, API sponsored a radio show called the Oil Forum featuring “a mixed panel composed of oil experts and local citizens.”76 According to an API representative, panel members answered all questions except “political” ones, where “politics” was defined as relating to issues “such as a ‘proper’ oil production tax.”77 The definition is revealing: by framing politics in such narrow terms, API could gain consent for more fundamentally political ideas about the appropriate tools to encourage social progress—ideas that underpinned the policy implemented by regional and state leaders—by treating them as common sense.
Indeed, API appears to have adopted this framing strategy. According to the authors of the 1950s report, the chamber of commerce in Williston was “very active in taking the lead in advancing the interests of the oil industry and thereby, in the opinion of the Chamber, the interests of the region and the state.”78 As of 1953, one director of the chamber of commerce was an oil man, and, not coincidentally, the chamber lobbied for policies favorable to the industry, including “a low oil production tax, 27½% depletion allowance, and a market demand law.”79 In short, the authors of the 1950s report conclude that because “most people are not interested enough in community affairs to be concerned about the leadership . . . they look mainly to business groups to supply the necessary leadership,”80 groups that took their lead from the oil men.
Conclusion: Impasse in the Face of the Petromodern Paradox
This implementation of the Petroleum Industry School Program in North Dakota in the 1950s shows how API could adapt the ideological, economic, and infrastructural dimensions of its narrative about oil to specific historical circumstances. By asking students to describe what oil had done for them, for instance, it encouraged them to identify the freedom promised by capitalism in their own lives, where, by all appearances, they were also experiencing challenges caused by the boom their state was undergoing. (That is to say, API asked students to describe how oil helped solve the problems it also created.) Through its radio show, it encouraged local residents to ask themselves similar questions. Through this framing process, API made it possible for political and business leaders to make decisions about more technical issues from which the oil industry stood to benefit.
It is worth noting that the ideas the API sought to advance remained current in the decades that followed. In a 2001 report marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of oil in North Dakota, John Bluemle, the state geologist, described the development of the oil industry in ways that echoed API’s narrative of progress: “The American entrepreneurial spirit and the need for energy to fuel the Industrial Revolution . . . launched the oil industry on its remarkable rise, first in the United States, then around the world.”81 Despite his curious sense of historical chronology (the Industrial Revolution predated the discovery of oil), his statement is important because it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the narrative advanced by API.
The persistence of these ideas brings us back to the paradox of petromodernity and the impasse described by the Petrocultures Research Group. On the one hand, the paradox of petromodernity risks leading to paralysis. To perpetuate the idea that oil can solve the problems that it also causes, API’s narratives emphasized the solution and obscured the problem. The potential for paralysis, on the other hand, arises from the recognition of the profound nature of these problems—the fact that human actions are changing the climate of the earth, possibly past the point of no return.82 In light of these challenges, the limits of API’s recuperative strategy become clear: the problems created by oil exceed API’s solutions.
However, although this impasse might seem paralyzing, identifying the ways the petromodern paradox operates—how its ideological, economic, and infrastructural dimensions interact and how the stories people tell paper over its contradictions—gives clues about how to overcome it. This moment of uncertainty, as the Petrocultures Research Group argues, is also a moment of potential change if people working toward an energy transition can imagine new ways to bring these different dimensions into relation with one another. This analysis of the Petroleum Industry School Program shows how API helped realize the configuration of resource production and consumption that has shaped North American society since the mid-twentieth century.
In light of this analysis, might new narratives—and new energy configurations—be possible?
We would like to thank Patrick McCurdy for retrieving most of the API documents from the Glenbow Museum archive in Edmonton, Alberta; the University of Ottawa for the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grant that funded this research; and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback.
Talbot, “Political Impact,” 150. Along with the Teacher’s Handbook, we looked at two collections of supplementary materials: Teacher’s Handbook: Work Supplement (1950) and Petroleum Industry Teaching Aid Materials (1950). However, because they merely repeat material from the Teacher’s Handbook, we excluded them from our analysis. Other publications that we could not find, despite having a record of their titles, included Oil for Today—and Tomorrow (1953), Conducting the Petroleum Industry School Program (1954), and The Conservation of Petroleum (1954).
We are adopting API’s term oil man for two reasons. First, it is historically accurate: the oil fields of the 1950s were dominated by men (see, e.g., Conway, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust). Second, because it sounds anachronistic to twenty-first-century scholars, it draws attention to the gendered assumptions not only of the 1950s oil industry but also the social structure underpinning it. In API’s pamphlets, as well as films and other publications, the heroes are always men. Women are present in passive support roles, if at all.
See LeMenager, Living Oil, chap. 1.
For a description of North Dakota’s 1953 legislative session, see Talbot, “Political Impact,” 104–16. Other important oil-related matters were taxes, administrative authority, and conservation practices. Note that legislators were concerned with the conservation of oil, not the environment.
Huber, Lifeblood, chap. 3.
Huber, Lifeblood, 75; emphasis in the original.
Conway, “Chronotopes of Petromodernity,” 53–55, based on statistics from the US Federal Highway Administration, “Highway Statistics Summary to 1995,” Table MV200; US Census Bureau, “United States Summary,” 2. Expressed differently, there was 1 car for every 4.6 people in 1930, 1 for every 2.4 people in 1960, and 1 for every 1.3 people in 1990.
Conway, “Chronotopes of Petromodernity,” 53. Gasoline and diesel both provide about 1.5 times as much energy per kilogram as coal.
The distribution across pamphlets was rather uneven and reflected the relative centrality of each document. The Teacher’s Handbook, consisting of fifty-seven pages divided into nine chapters replete with charts and diagrams, was meant to guide the use of the different booklets and thus contained more instances of each pair than the others.
For instance, API produced films that emphasized the themes of individualism, capitalism, and innovation, all made possible by oil. To give one example, Destination Earth (1956) was a cartoon that told the story of a Martian who comes to Earth to appreciate the innovation brought about by its free markets and exploitation of oil, two phenomena it treated as necessarily linked, with each being the precondition for the other. See Johnson, Carbon Nation, chap. 5; Tyagi, “Inscribing Interiority and Ideology”; Huber, Lifeblood, 72.
API, What Makes This Nation Go, 14; emphasis in the original.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 14.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 20–21.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 20.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 9.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 19.
API, Petroleum in Our Age of Science, 6, with similar passages in the Teacher’s Handbook and What Makes This Nation Go.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 9.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 25.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 14.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 14.
API, Teacher’s Handbook, 14.
API, What Makes This Nation Go, 11; emphasis in the original.
API, What Makes This Nation Go, 11; emphasis in the original.
Republished in Conway, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust.