restricted access Redefining Efficiency: Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 221-223

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Redefining Efficiency: Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry. By Hugh Gorman. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2001. Pp. xv+451. $49.95/$39.95.

Hugh Gorman has written an excellent book on an important topic. Redefining Efficiency focuses on a fundamental change in oil pollution control in the United States in the twentieth century. For the first half of the [End Page 221] century, "efficiency" was defined largely by the economic and engineering needs of the petroleum industry. Then new societal demands in the form of stricter regulatory standards gradually redefined efficiency to include stricter control of discharges into the water and air.

Gorman's somewhat unwieldy subtitle indicates his ambitious approach to his topic. He includes very interesting materials on the sources of pollution within the various sectors of the petroleum industry. His work is strongest in discussing the impact of technological change on the amount and type of pollution coming from refineries, oil fields, pipelines, and tankers. He shows how good engineers pressed to build more efficient production processes that used more of each barrel of oil, thus leaving less waste to be discharged or treated. Drawing on a growing secondary literature and extensive research in underutilized archives and industry trade journals, Gorman makes a major contribution to our understanding of the strengths and limitations of traditional engineering efficiency in controlling oil-related pollution.

This traditional, industry-led approach to defining the appropriate level of pollution faced political challenges after World War II, when a wealthier society demanded an improved quality of life that included greater control of oil pollution. The last third of Gorman's book analyzes the emergence of stricter regulation, which generally took the form of a command-and-control system under which government exercised its coercive authority to demand industry's adherence to stricter new standards on the discharge of pollutants. This concluding section on "regulatory mechanisms" is less detailed and less original than the rest of the book. It is much more difficult to maintain a clear focus on technological processes once the choices of new technology move from the individual companies to a confusing system in which choices are shared by the companies, government regulators at several levels, and politicians.

To be fair to Gorman, in his concluding section he seeks to do the impossible: effectively survey regulatory changes over almost fifty years in most major sectors of the American petroleum industry in about a hundred pages of text. This part of the book raises far more questions than it can systematically address. Which approaches to oil pollution regulation proved most and least efficient in their impact on technical processes? How did interest-group politics shape regulatory choices, both before the 1950s (when the oil industry could block most legislative initiatives) and after (when other interest groups aggressively entered the political fray)? Did industry engineers cease to make significant contributions to greater efficiency with the rise of regulation?

This last section of Redefining Efficiency provides much food for thought for those seeking to answer such questions. But the first two sections give readers more than their money's worth by unraveling a complicated process of change that shapes issues of ongoing import. This book is [End Page 222] another valuable contribution in the excellent series on Technology and the Environment from the University of Akron Press. It should find a ready audience among academics, oil industry specialists, and those who have the difficult job of trying to design an effective environmental regulatory system. As citizens we are in Gorman's debt for retrieving a useful past. As long as our economy remains dependent on petroleum, we will continue to struggle to define efficient environmental and oil policies amid competing political demands. Defining Efficiency offers much-needed historical context for our ongoing efforts to find a sustainable balance between our use of massive amounts of oil and the control of oil-related pollution.


Joseph Pratt

Dr. Pratt is an...