Tag Archives: oil

  • “Flicking switches, turning dials, and pressing buttons”: The important work of energy historians

    Written by guest blogger, Andrew Watson.

    I don’t think it’s too much of a cliché to say that most of us have only the vaguest idea what the origins are of the energy we consume on a daily basis. Many of us living in the world’s industrialized countries have it hammered into our daily lives that we should turn the lights off when we leave a room, that we shouldn’t leave the front door open on a cold day, and that we shouldn’t leave the engine idling. Doing these things is a “waste,” so we’re “saving” energy (and money). We’re concerned about an abstraction, but not because we appreciate its true form.

    In my introduction to the CJH/ACH special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories, I used Plato’s simile of the cave to convey the veil that shrouds our understanding of energy in the 21st century. In his parable, Plate describes prisoners in a cave who have never known any other life. Their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind them, a light casts shadows on the wall, and the prisoners are convinced that these images are the objects themselves. It is only upon their release and ascendance to the surface that the prisoners come to understand the difference between the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave and the true form of the world.

    The phenomenal power of fossil fuels has led us into the false perception that energy is, to quote Christopher F. Jones, “profoundly immaterial.” As Jones argues in his contribution to this special issue, “The Materiality of Energy,” we use so much energy today that we somehow don’t even notice. How is this possible? Under what historical circumstances has the industrialized (and industrializing) world come to detach energy consumption from most knowledge about its origins?

    letter Figure 1: Coal breaker, anthracite coal mining, Scranton, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

    In the opening article of the special issue, Jones lays out two useful types of arguments that historians of energy should consider in beginning to answer this question. First, modern energy regimes are shaped by the material realities of energy delivery infrastructure. Using oil and coal in the eastern United States as case studies, Jones explains how important it was that pipelines and canals had very different influences over energy pathways. Second, the materiality of an energy source fundamentally influences its production and consumption. Using anthracite coal as an example, Jones reveals that the transition from one fuel to another is never inevitable, but mediated by human negotiation with physical properties of competing fuels.

    letter Figure 2: The first oil well. Reproduction, copyrighted in 1890, of a retouched photograph showing Edwin L. Drake, to the right, and the Drake Well in the background, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first commercial well was drilled in 1859 to find oil. Source: Library of Congress

    Jones prompts us to grapple with material questions. Energy histories can help us understand the material realities of what are largely abstract understandings. Released from the belief that the material realities of our energy systems and experiences stop at the gas pump, or the light switch, or the thermostat, energy historians (like the ones featured in this special issue) can help society break free of those bonds and turn to see the fire burning behind us.

    Banner: Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

    Read the Editor’s Note in the latest issue of CJH as well as Christopher F. Jones’s article The Materiality of Energy, both free to read for a limited time here.

  • Supply or Demand? Integrating Perspectives on the Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons

    Written by guest bloggers, Odinn Melsted and Irene Pallua.


    Since the mid twentieth century, oil and natural gas – in short: hydrocarbons – have been the dominant energy carriers in industrialized countries. They have been the main energy providers for cars, trucks, ships, airplanes, industries and home heating. What is often overlooked is that the rise of hydrocarbons meant the decline of coal. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, coal was still the fuel of choice in railroad and maritime transportation, for industrial production, in residential heating, as well as electricity production. Yet between the 1940s and 1970s, a relatively short period of time in energy history, coal was largely pushed aside by hydrocarbon alternatives. Recent research on historical transitions and today’s practical experiences in attempting to implement a renewable energy transition have, however, revealed that incumbent energy systems tend to be resistant to change. How, then, could hydrocarbons take over so quickly?


    Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) area. Own figure based on data from Arnulf Grübler, “Energy Transitions,” in: Cutler Cleveland, ed. Encyclopedia of Earth (Washington, D.C.: National Council for Science and the Environment, 2008.

    One of the main challenges when dealing with energy history is to assess the scale of a transition. One way of doing so is to take a look at historical energy data. The figures above show Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) in OECD countries from 1900 to 2000 for different energy carriers. The graph on the left depicts the absolute values of energy carriers in exajoules. Here we can see that oil and natural gas multiplied between 1940 and 1970, accounting for much of the simultaneous increase in overall energy supply. In addition, we can identify a diversification from coal to multiple fuels. On the right, the figure shows the same data as relative shares, which reveals that coal lost its dominance in the energy mix as hydrocarbons took over. By looking at both absolute values and relative shares, we can see that coal clearly lost its dominant position to hydrocarbons, but at the same time maintained a status quo; its total supply only decreased slightly at first and then actually increased in the long run. How can this contradiction be explained? In what context did hydrocarbons replace coal, and what accounts for the continuing importance of coal in the energy mix?

    Those are some of the questions we deal with in our article entitled “The Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons: Previous Explanations and the Need for an Integrative Perspective”, which appears in the Canadian Journal of History’s special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories. We are currently both PhD candidates at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and have been working on dissertation projects on the history of energy. As we both focus on continuities and changes in the use of different energy carriers in the second half of the twentieth century (Odinn Melsted on Iceland’s energy system and Irene Pallua on the Swiss heating sector), we have been faced with the challenge of explaining how and why the transition from coal to hydrocarbons took place so quickly in so many different parts of the industrialized world. We each discovered that the existing literature on energy history only marginally deals with the question of why hydrocarbons replaced coal. All too often, oil and natural gas are portrayed as the superior fuels that were bound to take over from coal inevitably. When diving deeper into the vast literature on coal, oil and natural gas, the changes in energy supply systems, evolution of industries, transportation and heating, however, we discovered that many causal explanations have already been provided. Yet the disparity of the literature has made it difficult to grasp them and see them in the context of the over-arching transition from coal to hydrocarbons.

    black and white photograph

    black and white photograph

    black and white photograph

    Coal was long the fuel of choice for steam locomotives, industrial production and residential heating, but largely replaced with hydrocarbons in the mid twentieth century. This was due to a variety of causes, ranging from competitive prices and policy to limit smoke pollution, to the physical advantages of hydrocarbons, which are lighter, cleaner, have a higher energy density and are easier to control in combustion than coal. Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

    In the article, we draw together the causal explanations for the transition from coal to hydrocarbons. One of the problems we discovered in the research process is that the literature presents a gap between two perspectives: one on energy “supply” and another on “consumption.” The supply perspective focuses on the diversification of the overall energy supply system, where oil and natural gas were introduced to formerly coal-dominated energy economies. The consumption perspective, on the other hand, focuses on how consumers in different areas of the energy economy decided to switch from coal to hydrocarbon alternatives.

    We therefore integrated these perspectives and conceptualized the shift from coal to hydrocarbons as a complex transition that occurred at two levels. On the one hand, hydrocarbons became available as alternatives to coal at the level of energy supply, which created favourable circumstances for energy consumers to shift to hydrocarbons. On the other hand, individual energy consumers in railway and maritime transportation, residential heating, industrial production, and electricity generation actively decided to use hydrocarbon alternatives as substitutions for coal. By revisiting the explanations of the rising use of hydrocarbon energies in the mid twentieth century, we hope to direct attention to this hitherto understudied, yet nonetheless decisive transition in energy history and present an innovative approach to the analysis of historical fuel transitions.

    Odinn Melsted is the recipient of a DOC-fellowship of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences at the Department of History and European Ethnology at University of Innsbruck. His doctoral project deals with Iceland’s low-carbon transition during 1940–1990 and has also been supported by the Landsvirkjun Energy Research Fund.

    Irene Pallua is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and European Ethnology at University of Innsbruck. Her main research interest is in history of energy at the juncture of technology, society, and the environment. She is currently working on her PhD project on the history of heating in Swiss households.

    Read their article in the latest issue of CJH, “The Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons: Previous Explanations and the Need for an Integrative Perspective”—free for a limited time here.

  • Unlocking The First World Oil War

    Winegard_FirstWorldOilWarDr. Timothy C. Winegard discusses his interest in warfare, meeting his wife, and his new book The First World Oil War.

    How did you become involved in your area of research?

    I have been enthralled with warfare from a very young age. I can remember being in Grade One or Two and getting so excited for the Book Mobile to make its weekly visit to my school, because each week the librarians brought new war books specifically for me. To be honest, I suspect that many of them never actually got read, but I was fascinated by the photographs, knowing that my Grandfathers had served for Canada in these wars.

    My Great-Great-Grandfather Charles served in the Boer War and the First World War. My Great-Grandfather William served in both World Wars and his son, my Grandpa William, in the Second World War. They all served as “civilian soldiers.” I also have family members who served in Korea, Vietnam and the First Gulf War. Accordingly, I served nine years as an officer in the Canadian Forces, including a two-year attachment to the British Army. My name, Timothy Charles William Winegard, is a testament to their impact upon my family, and certainly myself.

    However, my primary passion has always been the First World War.  This is my fourth book, and the third looking at particular angles of the Great War.

    What inspired you to write this book?

    The origins of this book lie in a series of questions.  Having just published two books on global and Canadian indigenous peoples and the First World War respectively, my wife asked me, “What is your next book going to be on?”  Having been immersed in indigenous warfare and politics for the past six or seven years, I wanted to return to my roots as a pure military historian.  I had long ago written a journal article on the topic of this book.  In fact, that article on Dunsterforce from 2005, was the first piece of writing that I had ever published.

    I simply answered my wife’s question with: “Oil and War.”  Bewildered, she ingenuously asked: “Isn’t that a given?”  She unknowingly answered her own question, and the premise of this book.  And, yes, it is now a given.  But how, why, and when, did this marriage between oil and war happen?—during the First World War and its fraudulent peace.  And, how, why, and when, did the United States and the United Kingdom come to dominate global oil?—during the First World War and its fraudulent peace.   This book is, in essence, the answer to her question, and many more.

    How did you become interested in the subject?

    Simply put, oil dominates all aspects of modern society and has done so for the past century.  Oil was and is the catalyst for global conflict and aggression over this time period.  It really just seemed like a logical fit to trace the influence of oil on war and geo-politics from its starting point of the First World War to contemporary occurrences in the Middle East, Russia, the Ukraine, the Sudans, Nigeria, and of course this list could go on.  I also figured that with the Great War centennials approaching, now was the right time to finally sit down and write this book.

    How long did it take you to write your latest book?

    Adding in the time I spent researching, I would say roughly four to five years.  However, I wrote the actual manuscript/book over a two-year period.  The majority of this writing, however, was done over two summers, during my break from teaching, and coaching the university varsity hockey team.  During the actual school year, my time was limited, so while I did revisions and proof-reading, the actual writing occurred over two summer breaks.

    What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

    Certainly that people forget just how much impact the First World War has had on our lives.  Most events that have transpired in the last 100 years, including current events, have their roots in the Great War: the spread of Communism, the creation of Israel, the troubles in the Middle East, the partitioning of borders across the globe based on oil concessions and arbitrary demarcations, the issues in the Balkans.  The list is endless.  The goal of this book is to tie together the circumstances of the Great War to contemporary events using oil as the medium.

    What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

    Just how far the First World War (and oil) have taken us down the rabbit hole.  Some of the links and associations shocked me.  The rise of al-Qaeda, the politics of Afghanistan (and the entire greater Middle East for that matter), the corruption, and clandestine activities that took and take place to secure global oil rights.  It really is both mindboggling and fascinating.

    Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

    Compared to other books I have written; the research trips were not quite as hectic. I went to various archives and libraries in Canada, the United States, Britain, and Australia.  Although some of these trips overlapped with research for another book, so in this sense, I killed two birds with one stone.

    However, my research trips for this book produced my own adventures.  I was consumed by two tornadoes in the US, engulfed in a hotel fire in London, was subject to numerous cancelled flights, slept on countless acerbic airport floors and vinyl seats, and was forced to make an emergency landing at NORAD in Colorado Springs as the engine and baggage compartment of my plane were immersed in flames.  I suppose this is all a part of the travel and research process though!  I always joke that the actual writing part of the book process is the easiest, and I am sure many authors would agree.

    The best part of my research for this book, however, is that I met my wife Becky in Washington D.C. while I was at the US National Archives. I bought a ticket for a Washington Capitals game and she was sitting beside me.  She was in D.C. for a work conference, having flown in from Grand Junction, Colorado.  She is the reason I left Canada, and now live in Grand Junction, and teach and coach at Colorado Mesa University.

    What was the hardest part of writing your book?

    Aside from finding the time, I would say knowing what to include and what to exclude.  By that I mean trying to make the links from the Great War to more recent events clear to the reader, by not getting too focused on the details, but rather present the bigger picture of how it all fits together in one giant web of geo-politics and war.

    What are your current/future projects?

    Right now I am researching for a book on the political aspects surrounding the 1972 Summit Series of hockey between the Soviet Union and Canada. As Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip sings, “If there’s a goal that everyone remembers it was back in old ’72.”

    I am not really looking at the actual hockey that was played, nor Paul Henderson’s famous winning goal.  I am looking at the Cold War politics of the series, and the role played by both governments (and the United States) and their various security branches. The book will also look at the political aspects of the series on a national level in Canada, as it was made to coincide with the 1972 Federal Election.  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made sure of this, as he thought the series (and what was thought at the time to be Canada’s certain victory), would unite the country, and Canadians would forget about the FLQ Crisis, French-English divisions, and spiraling unemployment and inflation.  He used the series politically to try to gain voting favour in the upcoming election.  While he was reelected in 72, it was with a minority government.  These are just a few of the political aspects which will be detailed in the book.  There was a lot of political maneuvering happening amongst Canada, the Soviet Union, the United States and even NATO, both at the international level and also on the domestic fronts.  As Phil Esposito remarked, “This is war.”  Indeed, it was a cold war both on and off the ice.

    What do you like to read for pleasure?  What are you currently reading?

    To be honest, I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure, although all of the reading I do for my research is pleasurable nonetheless! I am currently reading secondary source literature for my next book.  I also read the weekly magazine Economist dutifully.  Lately, my son and I have been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for his bedtime story.  He is six, but we both love it—the vignettes mirror real life, and are quite hilarious.  We also like the Skippy John Jones kid’s series.

    What is your favourite book?

    This is a tough question!  I love J.R. Miller’s book, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada.  It is brilliant, and I often say that I wish I would have written it.  Thomas More’s Utopia, and Machiavelli’s, The Prince are also two of my favourites.  And while I don’t read a ton of fiction, I do love Joseph Boyden’s, Three Day Road, and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.  Some of my other favourite authors are: Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, and Margaret Atwood.

    If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

    I am not sure, really, as this is what I always wanted to do, and worked towards. Well, I always wanted to play in the NHL, like every other Canadian kid!

    I have always said that I wanted to enter politics later in my life, like my grandpa did.  I always said I wanted to be a Member of Parliament, and perhaps the Minister of Defence or the Minster of Indian Affairs.  Obviously, my move to the United States has hindered that aspiration for the time being.  And since America won’t grant me dual citizenship, I cannot run for office here in America, as I will always remain a citizen of Canada.  When our kids are adults, we may move back to Canada, and perhaps I can pursue this further.  Who knows though: Life happens while you plan for it!

    I loved my time in the Army, but didn’t want to make it a career.  Before I met my wife, I was teaching at Western University in the Indigenous Studies Department, and had been accepted to study aboriginal law at the Law School.  I might have made aboriginal law a career, had I not met Becky when I did.  But, I love my job, both teaching at a university and writing.  This is what I was programed for.

  • Freshwater Politics and the Gateway Project

    To mark the recent publication of Freshwater Politics in Canada, author Peter Clancy provides a brief overview of the freshwater dimensions of the controversial Northern Gateway project, as well as its many political dimensions. For more on this, or on related issues such as fracking, salmon conservation, Aboriginal water interests, freshwater governance, etc., grab a copy of his brand new book!

    The Northern Gateway project is one of the most significant energy ventures in Canada today. It proposes a 36 inch oil pipeline to convey diluted bitumen (heavy synthetic oil) from the Fort McMurray region to Kitimat BC. There it will be loaded onto tankers for Asian markets. A parallel 20 inch line will carry imported natural gas condensates, required in the manufacturing process, in the opposite direction. About 45 percent of the 1,177 km corridor is in Alberta with the balance in British Columbia.

    Freshwater politics is only part of the controversy here but it is a big part. More than one thousand rivers and streams must be crossed. While all watercourses are sensitive, the proposed Gateway route crosses five major Canadian watersheds. The Skeena and the Fraser drain to the Pacific, the Peace and the Athabasca flow northerly to the Arctic Ocean and the North Saskatchewan River flows easterly to Hudson’s Bay. These watersheds and sub-watersheds enclose a plethora of biological and social communities and each generates a variety of political concerns.

    Once upon a time in Canada, pipeline promoters worried principally about construction rights of way and financial backing. Big trunk pipelines were a post-1945 phenomenon with the Interprovincial Pipeline taking Alberta crude to Sarnia and the Trans-Canada Pipeline moving Alberta natural gas to southern Ontario. Today, land rights and financing are still key business parameters but they are joined by a complex set of political—regulatory and distributive—issues, including environmental impacts during the construction phase, operational safety over the life of the line, and pollution protection in the event of breakdowns.

    Political conflict is widespread. Several forces ensure this. In part it is because today we know and care far more about the bio-physical environment that pipelines traverse. In part it stems from the fact that the earlier generation of pipelines was dominated by organized interests at the source (producers) and at the terminus (consumers). Interests along the transit route were far less acknowledged. Today the interested public is wider—including First Nations, watershed activists, climate campaigners, and host governments. In addition, regulatory mandates are broader and deeper. In short our governing expectations have been transformed. There is far greater awareness and debate over the apportioning of risks and apportioning of benefits.

    In considering the environmental risks associated with Northern Gateway, the 2010 Michigan case is instructive. That July, a forty-year-old pipe ruptured near Battle Creek. In the eighteen hours between the first automated signal warning and the formal report of the breach, up to one million US gallons of oil spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The downstream flow affected a 25 mile stretch of the main river channel. With bitumen, the heavier compounds sink in water after a spill while the lighter ones float and evaporate. The pipeline owner, Enbridge Corp, spent more than two years dealing with the damages in the most expensive pipeline cleanup on record. The reasons for the spill—metal fatigue and faulty exterior lining—occurred in a relatively mature system but the issues it raises point to the future of Gateway as well. And remember the thousand-plus streams that the Gateway line will cross.

    Freshwater Politics in CanadaAnother striking feature of pipeline politics today is the range of state channels that shape decisions. For example, a project of this scale requires environmental licenses from both federal and provincial authorities. A joint regulatory panel was struck to streamline some of these legal requirements, and policy recommendations were ultimately conveyed to ministers for final decision. The Gateway panel included several hundred conditions as part of its ultimate recommendation for approval and a close analysis of those panel conditions, along with the ultimate ministerial versions, is necessary to capture the proposed apportioning of risks and benefits.

    Another critical channel of state authority is the courts. In vast stretches of proposed pipeline route, title to land is in dispute. First Nations that have never signed treaties or other land transfer agreements claim continuing Aboriginal rights to tribal territory. Without such guarantees from state authorities, it can be expected that a variety of legal injunctions can be expected to affect the project.

    In sum, the Northern Gateway project casts freshwater politics in sharp relief. In this, it joins a far wider set of agricultural, industrial, and municipal projects in regions across Canada.

    Peter Clancy is Professor of Political Science and an associate with Interdisciplinary Studies in Aquatic Resources (ISAR) at St. Francis Xavier University. He is the author of Offshore Petroleum Politics: Regulation and Risk in the Scotian Basin (2011) as well as Micropolitics and Canadian Business: Paper, Steel, and the Airlines (2004), and, with Anders Sandberg, Against the Grain: Foresters and Politics in Nova Scotia (2000).

    Note: If you are an instructor and would like to consider adding Freshwater Politics in Canada to the required reading list for an upcoming course, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy.

4 Item(s)